Anyone who has lost their parents and has had the task of sorting through their belongings will understand what a daunting task it is. Firstly there is the sheer volume of stuff to go through and the decisions as to what to do with things at a time when one’s thought processes are blunted by grief, secondly there is the feeling that you are invading your parents’ private world. My parents died within ten days of each other, my mother after a long fight with Cancer, my father from a broken heart; they had been together for fifty years and I honestly don’t think they were meant to be parted. Although they had pared down their belongings over the years there was still so much to sort out and pass on to worthy causes; my brother and I together sorted through paperwork, diaries and photographs and packed everything that we wanted to keep in a family chest that we could both look through whenever we wanted. It was when I was sorting through my father’s clothes that I found an old Christmas card box that totally knocked me for six. I opened it and it was like going back in time; inside were all sorts of little treasures that would probably seem of complete insignificance to anyone else but which told me in no uncertain terms just how much my brothers and I had been treasured by our father.
I think he must have been putting things inside for years and years. There was a birthday card that I had written to him when I was around seven, baby photographs and special school photographs, the fountain pen that he always used, a stick of shaving cream that took me straight back to how he always smelt at breakfast, the receipt from my brother’s first suit, a receipt from the hotel my parents stayed in when they took me to University for the first time, our brother’s name badge from his job in the bank, a wooden polar bear that our brother had made in woodwork at school and two little zoo animals. The last item held a special poignancy for me; my father always used to bring me one of these back to add to my collection whenever he went away with work. I rarely played zoos with them but instead would build schools using a variety of building blocks and would use the animals as people. Certain figures were always used as teachers – an ostrich was a rather fluffy English teacher, a gorilla a gruff PE teacher and the zoo keeper was used as a rather ineffectual headteacher. A rather fragile looking gazelle was the head girl and a sturdy polar bear the head boy; they always ended up becoming romantically involved. I would play with my ‘school’ for days until our brother became involved and invariably enlivened the proceedings with pupil fights and canings by teachers. His school experience was perhaps somewhat different from my own! Anyway, inside the box my father had put a little monkey which obviously reminded him of me and a warthog which was designed, I think, to remind me how I nicknamed my brother ‘Warty’ as he had a wart on his hand; I think it was my dad’s way of reminding my other brother and me that we shouldn’t feel guilty for having been typical siblings and that all children go through phases of being unfeeling and somewhat cruel.
We worry so much about what we will leave behind for our children but at the end of the day the very best legacy is happy memories. It is the little things in life that matter the most, taking notice of the things that our children do, remembering the small everyday occurrences rather than the big achievements. When it comes to remembering those we no longer have we don’t need a multitude of keepsakes but just a few small reminders: in respect of my mum it is the recipe book full of all our family favourite dishes written in her beautiful handwriting, my dad it is his little treasure box of keepsakes and a pair of braces which he always wore to work, my brother it is two gorgeous shells that he found in the sea at Carnac on our last family holiday.
Little things, huge memories.