LETTING GO

I have written about books and “stuff” and collecting objects before, but have since had to share, with my partner (the “OH”), sister and other family members, the grim and heartbreaking task of clearing our parents’ house, selling it and saying goodbye to well over 40 years of memories. My father bought it as a plot of land over 40 years ago, so it has only ever had our family living in it – until today: completion day.

Dismantling my parents’ lives and all that they had built up together over so many years has caused me actual physical pain. I sort-of helped with clearing my grandparents’ houses, way back in the early ‘80s, which was also very sad and emotional for me, but have to admit that it was mostly my parents and their siblings who had the grim clearance task that time. And perhaps it wasn’t so grim for them, since, in each case, they didn’t appear to hold any great sentimental attachment to either property. (Also, our grandparents’ generation didn’t accumulate so much unnecessary STUFF, as I have written about before.)

I, however, despite not ever having lived in the house, felt our family’s history seeping from every wall and felt incredibly protective towards it. I hated having to leave it every time we stayed there. It felt as though I was abandoning it, and my parents with it, and I would often cry for most of the journey home. Good job my OH is the understanding sort! My only consolation is that our buyers are a young couple, keen to put down roots, as they put it, and, most likely (I’m guessing), wanting to start a family. The place needs another family there and it needs some upliftment, too. The last few years have been undeniably sad and tough for us all. Though it felt very strange and difficult, for me, this past week, to see post starting to arrive in the new owners’ names…

I cried, too, when I saw the skip on the drive for the first time. We had to hire three altogether. It took two solid weekends to clear the garage, shed, loft and airing cupboard alone; never mind any of the actual rooms. When I hired someone to help clear the house of the bigger items of furniture the final week we were there, he had just the one day free that week. He said he had been manically busy, as had all house clearance/van hire people, because of the stamp duty holiday and easing of lockdown rules. This was also the reason why so many of the charities we tried couldn’t take our things. They were overrun with surplus items. The world and his wife, it seemed, had been having massive clearouts during lockdown.

I cried some more when I saw the boxes and boxes of brand-new, never-been-taken-from-their-wrappers Christmas decorations.  Mum had obviously bought them (when?), then someone (who?) had put them away in the loft for her. She must have forgotten about them. But she was clearly ordering for a big family Christmas; the kind we used to have (in our previous home) when our grandparents came to stay, or other family members, and when friends and neighbours dropped by.  It was never going to happen; only in her mind. The family are far-flung and scattered and there are long-standing feuds and rifts to add to the mix. I gave some away to the kind next-door neighbours who had been keeping an eye on the place for us when we weren’t there and also to our lovely gardener down there, who was a huge help to us in so many ways. It broke my heart to see them all. She must have spent a small fortune on them; no doubt from one of the many colourful catalogues that dropped through the letterbox on an almost daily basis: her link to the outside world (she couldn’t manage a computer, for which, with all the clever scams about, I was heartily thankful). I expect half the attraction for her was being able to speak to someone on the other end of the line. I hope they understood this and were patient with her.

We tried putting the bigger and better items at the top of the drive and some of them went very quickly. The rest had to go back on the skip. My sister’s friend very helpfully put ads on a local “free” site and we managed to get rid of a lovely big armchair and matching footstool that way. The woman who came to pick it up had had a stroke last year and was walking with a stick. She was very grateful for the chair, and for a couple of other useful items she rescued from the skip. Someone else came by and asked if we had any houseplants to go. As it happened, we had ten, and I was planning on bringing them all back home with me, then decided I could probably live without most of them, so he walked away with six plants for his wife. He told me he had been living in South Africa for 12 years but decided to return home for his children’s sake. He wanted a better education and life for them and it was getting very dangerous out there, he said. 

Another man came in to see what bits and pieces of crockery were going begging, saying he was getting them for his daughter, who he and his wife were now living with. Their son had been killed in a road accident on the nearby bypass a year ago and it had made them look at things in a different light. They were living in a seven-bedroom house at the time, with four cars on the drive. He said he had had 47 pairs of jeans and about a hundred Ralph Lauren shirts! After letting the family take what they wanted, he and his wife walked out of the house with just one bag of belongings each – and that was it. He looked so sad as he was telling me all this, I really wanted to hug him, but obviously couldn’t.

Being an avid reader myself, I looked more closely at the books that summed up my parents’ lives. Typical of their generation, there was no internet and google, of course, and so the bookshelves were filled with huge, hefty tomes of advice and information on gardening, family health, the Royal Family, travel (just how many books on France and Italy did we need?!), sport (mostly rowing, golf and cricket, which were my dad’s interests), cookery and wine-making, which my dad tried for a while before giving up – and he wasn’t even a drinker of it, but always said he found it an interesting subject to read about. There were encyclopedias and atlases, bibles galore (and we’re most definitely not a religious family), and, perhaps rather chillingly, useful books and pamphlets on making a will and what to do when someone dies…

There was the 1950s oak sideboard that my parents bought when they were first married. The big, very old family bureau that I’m hoping will stay in the family, though nobody appears to have the room, is temporarily residing in my sister’s living room of her small flat. I know my mother wanted it kept in the family. A few more, smaller items of furniture we managed to share between us without any argument. Oh, yes – ahem – there’s also the very old oak dining table and chairs my grandparents bought at auction a very, very long time ago.  I looked and looked and looked at it over the weeks and months we stayed in the house and finally decided I couldn’t, I simply COULD NOT let it go, so I paid quite a bit of money to have it transported from the house to my own house, where it now resides in the already-rammed-full home office at the bottom of the garden, as there is no room for it anywhere else. I used to lovingly dust and polish its chubby, curved legs whenever I stayed with my beloved grandparents. There are so many memories of happy family meals around that table. Though who’s going to have it after I’ve gone is anybody’s guess. (Maybe I’ll have stopped caring by then. I do hope so. It’s exhausting and debilitating, carrying around all this emotional baggage.)

However, surprisingly, despite it being very trendy and sought-after in certain quarters, few people were interested in the G-Plan furniture my parents collected from the 60s and 70s. It was in excellent condition, considering its age (unlike the rest of us), but we were paid a fraction of its worth to have it taken away. It had to go. Though I found an old label for how to put one of the items together, and I’ve kept it, so there. (You see how difficult all this has been, for someone like me?!)

There were LPs galore: musicals and big band sounds, James Last, Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, Andy Williams and Simon and Garfunkel. Plus many more. The musical history of our family. 

There were countless letters and cards to wade through, postcards both used and unused, newspaper clippings, local theatre programmes and brochures for stately homes and gardens visits and, as one who likes to keep these things myself, it has made me see the utter pointlessness of doing so. Have I ever looked at any of mine again? No. Will I, in the next ten or 20 years? Unlikely. I suppose the answer would be to collate the highlights into scrapbooks but, again, who else would be interested in seeing those?

The ancient family bible, dated 1817, is so huge and so heavy. I was hoping somebody else in the family would want it, but no, it’s landed on my dining table, along with a lot more stuff I have yet to wade through, so I guess it’s mine until I can pass it on to whoever in my family would like it. That’s the problem with not having children. I don’t have anybody to pass all my toot and tat on to, aside from my niece and nephew, and I doubt very much they will welcome it with open arms when the time comes!

Something they might be interested in, though, is my maternal grandfather’s diaries. Unfortunately, he didn’t keep diaries every year – or, if he did, they’ve long gone – but I brought home the ones dating 1934 to 1941 (though not consecutive, unfortunately –whatever happened to those?!) and have found them riveting reading. I’ve learned an awful lot I didn’t know about my own family and my OH, on reading them, said that he felt he knew my grandad really well, despite never having met him. There’s lots about the war, of course: rationing, hiding under the table in the kitchen when bombs were being dropped rather too close for comfort and there’s a mention of lots of planes flying overhead one night, which, it turned out, were on their way to bomb the hell out of Coventry. Family and work-related “trivia” is in there. (He was a staunch Labour supporter and a union member, naturally. I mean proper, old-school Labour, who didn’t approve of owning one’s own home – something he came to regret in later life, when he apologised to my mother and her sister from his hospital bed, saying how sorry he was that he had nothing to leave them. He would  be so distressed and disappointed with his Party, these days!) The family enjoyed going to the local cinema, and cycled everywhere in the surrounding countryside to visit relatives and friends. The weather is mentioned quite a bit, and it’s not nearly so dull as it sounds. If only he hadn’t written most of it in pencil, though, bless him!

Don’t get me started on the photos! Boxes and boxes, suitcases, albums and bags of them galore – often duplicated, just to add to the confusion. Some of the photos have careful and helpful explanations and identifications on the back, but many don’t. I study their faces for clues. The houses and gardens in the background. The fashions of the day. Someone in the family has attempted to begin the family tree on my mother’s side, but I’m still no wiser as to who half the people are in the photographs. My sister, panicking at the encroaching completion deadline, threatened to hurl the boxes of slides on to the skip, without going through them first, which I thought unwise, so, guess what? They are in our house now, along with the bulky projector to view them with. Scream!

There were way too many drinking glasses – who needs that many?! We weren’t a family of drinkers. Nor did we give frequent parties. I don’t know what was going on, there. The local charity shops have got very picky, these days, and will only take full sets, now, so the rest had to go into recycling. 

We had caravans in the ‘70s (not more than one at a time, obviously) and, yes, right at the back of one of the kitchen cupboards we found a very bright yellow melamine set of plates and mugs and bowls – the ones we used when we were away. But I’m not keen on bright yellow, and nobody else seemed to want them, so they also went to a charity shop.

There were sets of pristine, unused bedding and towels. And the tea-towels! I said to my OH: “Who the hell needs so many tea-towels?!” When I was back in my own home, I opened the drawers under the bed, where we keep spare duvets and pillows and, guess what? There are about a hundred tea-towels lurking in there. They’re going to have to go. I do like a nice tea-towel, though – I’m drawn to them, then I put them away, because I don’t want to get them grubby. Sigh. Clearly, it runs in the family.

I have always thought having lots of storage is A Very Good Thing. Not any more. Having ample storage just means shoving lots of things in there and then never looking at them again. A friend has just had her loft converted into another bedroom and bathroom, and has found she doesn’t miss the extra storage space at all. She says she prefers to have everything to hand, now; it makes for a much easier life and I can understand that one. It does force you to keep your belongings down and, as far as I’m concerned, this is now my new Very Good Thing.

This entire, painful, emotional exercise has been a salutary lesson in not hanging on to useless stuff we never even look at again. What is it all for?! I really wish my parents had thought to clear out the loft, and other places, while they still could. Though, of course, nobody expects to have two strokes 11 years apart and die of the second (my dad); nor do they expect to end up physically disabled, and with dementia, in a home (my mother). The wardrobes upstairs were full of the clothes and shoes my mother ordered by phone (she couldn’t leave the house in the last few years), then never arranged to have them sent back when they didn’t fit her, or whatever – they all still had their labels on. And the cupboards downstairs were full of brand-new, expensive-looking china, more glassware, kitchen and beauty gadgets still in their boxes and a set of silver-plated cutlery with the receipt still in the box – over two hundred pounds, ouch. My theory is that, after spending most of her life being careful with money and making-do, she could finally afford to relax the purse-strings a little and spoil herself with the sorts of treats she would never have considered before. None of us knew about these things whenever we visited; nor about the unpaid cheques, bills and backlog of important paperwork. It’s been great fun trying to untangle and make sense of it all – not.

We have little enough space in our own home and we are, in fact, starting the process of decluttering, ourselves, so the last thing we need is to be saddled with any more stuff. But, as I write, our dining table is almost completely covered with papers, diaries, photos, the aforementioned huge family bible, and many more things I couldn’t bear to throw out before at least going through them first. I begged the rest of my family to take more things from the house but they, like us, have very limited space – and have plenty of stuff of their own.

The whole sorry process wasn’t helped by me being such a terrible sentimental hoarder. I wish I could have hardened my heart and just tipped the whole lot into the skip. But I couldn’t. My OH is just as bad: when it came to clearing his own parents’ house, he took things to the local charity shop one day, and went and bought them all back the next!

I have even been known to buy other people’s personal family scrapbooks and diaries. I can’t stand to see them lying forlornly on a tabletop at a vintage fair. (They’re quite interesting, actually. Funny, too. I blogged about them a while back, if you can be bothered to find it.) Maybe that’s where mine will end up, one day. I hope not. 

We had been enjoying regular takeaway Sunday roasts and other meals from the local pub for some months, since they were able to reopen. We wanted to support them. The first time we sat down, back at the house, with our lovely lunches in front of us, wafting their appetising scent everywhere, I said to the OH: “I honestly cannot remember the last time a roast was cooked in this house.” Even my sister, who has a much better memory than me, couldn’t remember. Yet it was the most important meal of the week, at one time, and I fondly recall my mother and my grandmother’s gargantuan and extremely delicious Sunday lunches, not to mention the amount of effort that went into the shopping, cooking and preparation of them. And the washing-up and clearing-up, after. Every week, rain or shine, summer or winter (caravan holidays and weekends away excepted, of course), year in, year out. (On reflection, this might be why we seemed to go away so often.) 

Then there was the garden: a riot of bloom and colour when my parents were fit and able, but sadly gradually deteriorating over the years. I was paying our regular gardener to come out every couple of weeks to keep it all in shape, and put new plants into the patio pots and in the borders, where they were looking bare and unloved. As Mum will now never see these things, I have been taking lots and lots of photos to show her. This spring, I found it particularly moving to notice all the bulbs emerging from the earth. My parents must have planted these and the garden will continue to flourish; oblivious, of course, as to who will be looking at the plants and flowers and taking care of them from here on. (Naturally, the honeysuckle is flourishing absolutely everywhere, this year, just to torment me!) And so the cycle continues…

Saying goodbye to the lovely neighbours, our gardener and his wife and the dear elderly and very sprightly man who has lived in the same house in the village all his life and who very kindly took the bins out for us, and for various neighbours who couldn’t manage it themselves (and brought them back in again), was especially difficult for me. I’m going to miss them all hugely. We have never experienced such friendliness where we live, as we did when enjoying one of the many beautiful walks right on our doorstep down there. Everyone, of every age, said hello. We will be back, though: to see Mum, to visit Dad’s grave and other things we want to do, and have been invited for tea in a couple of places when we venture down there again. It’s not the same as having a base there, though, of course. 

A shout-out to my long-suffering OH, here. I don’t know many men who would have done what he’s done for me, this past year and a half. All the driving, the fixing of things in the house and the uncomplaining support he has given me in so many ways during what has been one of the worst times of my entire life (and there have been some real corkers) is over and above and beyond the call of duty. He is a rare gem indeed. I might even now be able to come off the anti-anxiety/depression/sleeping pills I’ve been taking to get me through all this – though I’ve a feeling he prefers me to be slightly dopey at times! I was crying every day, and barely sleeping, before, and I was feeling truly desperate. The funny, plain, ordinary, boxy little house that Dad bought so many years ago has been a true haven, refuge and sanctuary for me. I think he would have liked that.

So, here we are. It’s over. Now that the house has gone, and everything in it has ended up in a skip, a bin, a charity shop, a van, a neighbour’s garden or a family member’s own house, I need to turn a fresh eye to the contents of mine, take a deep breath, gird my loins and get stuck in to sorting out all my own stuff. Wish me luck. I’m going to need it!

Author: Hampton Caught

The rants and ramblings of an ex Deputy Fiction Editor of Woman's Weekly magazine.

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