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Secrets, Relics & Lost Lives

How I found myself in a cardboard box

By Corinna Edwards-Colledge

 

Tonight only the breathless pulse of air

and the song of occasional late-birds

disturbs the space between one figure and another;

I am alone with them and all my memories. (Paul Edwards, c.1955)

 

When you lose a beloved person, one of the questions you ask yourself is, when are they truly gone? Is it at the moment of death? When the last person who remembers them dies?  Or when the very last object they owned has turned to dust? Then you think, maybe no-one has ever truly ‘gone’, because maybe there is nowhere to go? Maybe the eternal recycling of energy in the universe encapsulates everyone who has ever been and ever will be? 

I was reminded of these existential questions one morning, in January 2020, 18 years after my dad’s death. I was contemplating three unprepossessing cardboard boxes that had sat, for a couple of years, at the top of our kitchen stairs. As the world slumbered on in blissful ignorance of the Covid pandemic that was about to engulf it, I was focused on something deeply personal.  

I had woken up that morning vibrating with energy, certain that this was the day I would finally tackle the contents of these boxes; a process that I knew was going to be profoundly emotional. What I wasn’t prepared for was how the contents of the boxes would answer some of the biggest questions I had held inside me for nearly five decades – particularly about my parents’ separation and my ancestors.

My father’s death, just weeks after the birth of my first son, was a traumatic and devastating experience for me. His switch from being vibrant and alive to skeletal and wizened, following his fight with leukaemia and the ravages of chemotherapy, took just six months from diagnosis to death. I had the privilege of being with him when he died, but it did not protect me from the shock and horror, trying to grieve while being the main organiser of his funeral and flat clearance, and trying to deal with the challenges of being a parent for the first time.

This meant that a lot of my dad’s things went into storage – kindly taken in by friends and secreted in lofts or garages – and over a period of nearly 20 years I slowly went through them. This led to a lot of exciting discoveries, such as my Uncle Roy’s beautiful homoerotic illustrations, drawn at a time when being a gay man was still a crime, a collage dedicated to him by Roland Penrose and a letter to my teenage father from Jean Cocteau. These ‘findings’ revealed to me the creativity and bravery of my dad and uncle, two working-class Essex lads, who had managed to blossom out of their deeply conventional childhoods into the glorious and anarchic Surrealist scene in London in the 1950s and 60s.  Some of my uncle’s drawings feature in the Queer the Pier exhibition which runs at Brighton Museum until March 2023,

However, for all the light, adventure and colour of these first explorations, I knew that what was left in the final three boxes formed the nucleus of my deepest and most personal heritage.  These boxes contained my dad’s most intimate letters and poems, as well as the death certificate of the grandfather I never met.  One almost macabre occupant was my Nanna Kathleen’s plait of hair, still glossy and auburn, saved by her after getting a fashionable bob a hundred years earlier. These boxes hummed with the past, nerve-jarring and resonant.  

It took a week to go through the boxes, an extraordinary experience that at times felt like a haunting. The only thing was I didn’t know who was haunting who. Was I haunting my dad by excavating these deeply personal records and objects, or was he haunting me through them? Sometimes it felt like magic: flicking through thousands of poems and letters, I found that my fingers had eyes, feeling their way to passages that revealed profound family secrets, or answered questions about my childhood that I had agonised over for years. I discovered that before my granddad had died in his forties of an undiagnosed brain tumour, he had tried to strangle my grandmother when he was dreaming, and regularly fell asleep over his dinner. No one had understood his strange behaviour, until they realised that a growth was interfering with the behavioural zones of his brain. I found the court evidence that my dad had used to register his own legal case as a conscientious objector in the 1950s, and the letters of support from friends and colleagues. I found lost love letters from the ill-fated six years of my mum and dad’s relationship; and a heart-breaking poem from 1974 that describes my dad’s pain at not living with me anymore. It ends: 

All the years of her growing up I expect to want to cry

at the hour of parting knowing only too well why

& wondering if I will remain, her father. (Paul Edwards, 1974)

 

By the end of the week, I felt transformed and strangely unburdened. I also knew I had come to a significant realisation: personal objects have power, and these personal objects were fast becoming obsolete. How much more powerful my father’s words were when I read them from the exact piece of paper he had typed or written them on half a century earlier.  How moving to be able to hold the very train ticket that my dad used to come and visit his newborn grandson, just days before his cancer diagnosis. Through this realisation, the contents of the boxes also became a kind of elegy for a disappearing age, as I watched the world hurtle towards the complete digitalisation of our memories.  

When I was a little girl, one of my favourite games was to pretend to be an archaeologist. My mum had bought a huge, semi-derelict Victorian house in Manchester, and set about turning it into a home through sheer will, energy and vision. Once finished, it was filled with lodgers and political activists. Not surprisingly, I was a precocious child, more at home with adults than children my own age. Highly skilled at solitary play, I could spend hours digging holes in the garden, unearthing domestic treasures like broken willow pattern china and old, amber-coloured beer bottles filled with mud and moss. Holding these items for the first time would make me shiver. There is a Japanese word for this kind of response: tsukumogami. It defines and describes the tangible power of objects and tools that have absorbed the intent and emotions of their owners over many years, ultimately developing a form of self-awareness.

In many cultures the distinction between ‘things’ and ‘beings’ is much more blurred than in mine.  The wonderful Guyanese-British writer, philosopher, singer and actor, Cy Grant, was a family friend, and a regular visitor throughout my childhood. A few years before his death in 2010, he wrote an amazing series of essays and published them together in Our Time is Now (2010). In much of the book, he explores the relationship between spirituality and science. As he observes, ‘The indigenous peoples of the earth, knew by intuition that everything is interconnected. But modern man has abandoned this inner knowledge…’  He also goes on to assert that within the theories of quantum mechanics, ‘life and inanimate matter are not separate’, and that matter is ‘a bundle of energy which is given form only by an intelligent spirit.’

It is impossible to reflect on the emotional and nostalgic power of personal artefacts like photographs, letters, tickets and childhood toys without experiencing a pang of melancholy. Melancholy for a potential future without some of these treasures, and melancholy for those that have no such objects. The millions of refugees, for example, forced to leave behind so many, if not all, of these resonant and emotional objects.  

It is inspiring and encouraging to see many marginalised groups and individuals using their personal artefacts to claim their place in history and tell their stories. For example, the Queer the Pier exhibition has filled a whole gallery with the posters, letters, newspaper articles, postcards, clothes and art works of generations of local LGBTQ+ people. At the same time, there is  much to be hopeful about in our evolving digital culture, as it democratises and opens up new spaces for diverse groups of people to meet and share their stories.  

It’s important to remember that the people we love and have loved are also powerful talismans. In the dark times after my dad’s death, I saw a grief counsellor. She asked me a question that I will never forget. ‘Would you be a different person if you had never known your dad?’ I realised then that every aspect of myself – the way I parented, the way I viewed the world – had the inviolable essence of my father in it. I found this immensely comforting, as for me it meant that even though my two sons never knew their granddad, he was a part of them. So we are like Russian dolls, with every previous version of ourselves folded inside, and, arguably, all the way back through our ancestors, too.

We all travel on a thread that is filled with words, pictures, and memories. A thread that can bend space and time, and at times, even transcend death. So, treasure those letters, postcards, toys and tickets that are so easily lost or forgotten. And if you have none, maybe start your collection today. Those objects will help to tell the extraordinary and unique story that is you and bind you forever to those you love.

 

You can join the Facebook Group, The Findings, which is inspired by my experience of discovering my dad and uncle’s artefacts:  https://www.facebook.com/groups/thefindings

Corinna Edwards-Colledge is a Brighton based writer and trade unionist.  You can find out more about her novels, poems and short stories at http://www.corinnaedwards-colledge.co.uk

 

 

 

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