My life in a box

August 23, 2008

It was there waiting for me when I got back. A vast, sprawling, filthy tip of mess, piled in heaps around the pristine spare bedroom of my English home. Exploding trash bags of notes from my schooldays; dust-laden boxes of yellowed books; mouldering suitcases stuffed with ancient cards and letters. The abandoned detritus of the family loft, of my life, dumped with me for sorting and disposal.
I stood there, exhausted and weirdly emotional after the all-night flight from Washington DC. It’s easy to get overwhelmed in those first surreal moments of readjustment, and dirt and mess always get me down.

A short sleep, a search for elbow-length rubber gloves and grubby apron, and I was back. The task: to sort the heap into three piles – one for the trash, one for the charity shop, one for keeping. One task, but a thousand surprises, a thousand decisions, and some heart-stabbing reunions. As I sifted and sorted I found myself making a journey back in time, to the roots of who I am and how I came to be here. These are some of the things that made it into the ‘keeping’ box.

My granny’s vintage black evening gloves that button up to the elbow. My granny was born in 1889 and through her I saw some of the big events of history. The sinking of the Titanic, the death of her fiance at Ypres, the Blitz as she took cover on the back steps and down in the air-raid shelter. Her life in India with my grandfather who grew tobacco and shot big game in an age when it was fine to slay beautiful wild animals; the near-death of both my grandparents in local uprisings. And then – her solo voyage to America where she worked as a governess at a time when women didn’t really do that sort of thing. She was bold and charismatic, she was fanatically parsimonious (hanging her teabags on a little washing line so they could dry out and be reused) – but she was always immaculately dressed and never, ever scrimped on her expensive face cream, even when she was 95 and far beyond the help of L’Oreal.

The books I wrote. Yes, I was an author at the age of six! I frequently announced that I was off to write another work. And here they are – THE GRRL, THE MOUS AND THE HORSE. And the highly illustrated SALLY’S RIDING SCHOOL. Piles of notebooks filled with my huge writing and crayoned drawings.

A teddy bear named Benjamin Bernard Saunders. Benjamin belonged to my big sister. His cousin, George James Robinson, was mine, and a polar bear by ethnicity. George resides in Virginia where he still sports his natty, knitted school uniform. Under Big Sister’s instructions we lined up the bears (and their friends) in ‘classrooms’ made from wooden bricks and gave them endless tests. Poor George James usually had ‘could do better’ against his feeble efforts (Big Sister didn’t mess around). Oh, and here are their tiny school bags and minute work-books which we made. And in which I see Big Sister wrote the names of all the boys she liked. (I’ve decided she must have been an early developer.)

The vocational guidance test I was made to take when I was fourteen, when I had already understood, through frequent repetition, that I’d very likely never amount to anything. In pages of detail I glean that I was deemed to be extrovert, should work in a team, and preferably in the field of literature. Hah!

Aged copies of BLACK BEAUTY (horses! suffering! triumph!), HEIDI (oh those golden curls! Drinking milk out of a bowl!), TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and CATCHER IN THE RYE. All awesome! MOCKINGBIRD turning me from a child reader into an adolescent one.

My degree certificate from ‘Universitas Cambrensis’. The University of Wales. Perched a few feet from the wild Irish Sea, my hall of residence experienced the highest wind speeds ever recorded in Britain. We would wake to find seaweed stuck to our fourth-floor window, and I would labour up the seaside promenade hefting book bags packed with Beowulf (in the original Anglo Saxon), Chaucer, Melville, Faulkner, Dickens and (my favourite) E.M. Forster.

A Teach-Yourself Welsh book. Unsurprisingly. My husband calls it ‘the language without vowels’ (or is it more that the vowels are in quite the wrong place?). Impenetrable and crazily Celtic, it reminds me not only of my friends for whom Welsh is their first language, but also of some of my favourite places in the world: the little towns of Dolgellau and Beddgelert; the wild craggy mountains of Cader Idris and Snowdon. They say that if you spend the night alone on Cader you’ll wake insane in the morning, and I’m not surprised.

A smelly, yellowed copy of James Joyce’s ULYSSES. I held the English Department’s record for having read this punctuation-less book FOUR times. If you can beat that madness, I promise to buy you a pint of Guinness, should we ever meet.

And then the motherlode. Or perhaps I should say fatherlode. A cassette tape recorded by my father in 1981, outlining his feelings for me. I haven’t heard his voice for nearly twelve years (he died in 1997) and still dare not play the tape. A difficult man, a difficult relationship, but as a child I would sit on the floor surrounded by his books which I pulled from the old mahogany bookcase. A man who created a business from nothing and ended up advising, and taking tea, with the Royal Family. Who died with more than 4000 books crammed into his stone cottage in the far west of England. Books in the kitchen cupboards (no food), the airing cupboard, under the bath, in the bedroom closets. Who in the final years of his life wrote Cold-War thrillers, was taken on by a top London literary agent – and yet never got a book deal. Who delighted in the delicious irony that his daughter was a publisher, though he could never understand why on earth I wasted my time on children’s books (‘So when are you going to get a job doing PROPER books?’). And I sit and wonder – what would he say if he knew I was to become a literary agent, that I would move to America, that I would start a business. And I find myself laughing because I know he would have been thrilled and amazed, no doubt boring his friends half to death about it.

So I close the box and prepare to push it under the bed, there to gather dust along with someone’s old sleeping bag, a sun lounger, my guitar amp (which is a story for another day). But I think about my journey and how I got here – the stories of my family and their journeys that they bequeathed to me. The hard work, the struggles, the surprises, the dreams – the odd heroic failure – that have got me this far and to this place. And I wonder – what would be in the box of your life? What has been your journey and the story you have to tell?

I start thinking about packing to go home to the States on Tuesday. Two homes, two countries, but a box under the bed that marks the milestones.

Wishing you peace on your journey.