One of the Times pieces I included in my latest book - Days Are Where We Live - is one I wrote some years ago about losing almost all of our things in a fire.
I've been asked by BBC Woman's Hour to join a studio discussion about the experience, tomorrow morning, Friday August 28th. If it happens, it will be between 10 a.m. and 10.45 a.m. UK time.
Here is the piece:
Home is where
the clutter is
Next time you open that kitchen drawer full of jumble and groan,
don’t even think of calling a clutter consultant or a Feng Shui space clearer.
Just be thankful instead. When I lost all my things in a fire, there were times
when I yearned for my very own tangle of fossilised rubber bands, ancient
postcards, last year's advent candle, furry balls of Blu-tak, crushed paper
flowers from playgroup, tatty plant labels, tacky plastic novelties from
Christmas crackers and old matchbox cars with scratched paintwork. The relics
in that drawer are symbols of your family history, and in their own way are as
precious as the antique oak bureau in the dining room or the original oil
painting over the mantelpiece. Only when your belongings are snatched away do
you learn which ones are irreplaceable.
When we sold our house and temporarily moved into furnished,
rented accommodation I didn't think twice about putting our things into storage
with the removal company. But my 10-year -old son refused to store a single
item, and took every last Lego brick, four years worth of Beanos, and his
complete rock and fossil collection.
We were still renting 18 months later, when we received a letter
from the removal firm informing us that a fire had completely destroyed all our
things. For me, it took a week for the reality to sink in, but my husband –
ever practical, resourceful and proactive - came round sooner. He went to the
warehouse with a garden fork and spade to sift through the ashes in search of
any traces of our former existence, anything to soften our bereavement. When he
arrived, he found a blackened shell of a building knee deep in filthy sludge,
with burnt out washing machines and fridges poking out above the surface.
We had a brief summary inventory of what had been stored in our
six containers and my husband set about locating the detritus from them by
looking for a large non-flammable object from each, such as our tandem, my
daughter's bicycle, a stone garden trough.
He managed to position all but one of the containers and retrieved just
a few things from the disgusting, sodden ashes.
Most of these objects were pathetic items, but to us they were
treasures. Amazingly, the plastic twin dolls I had dressed and played with as a
child were there, twisted and deformed, but still dressed in the clothes I had
made for them and to me, still loveable. He found his father's old spring
balance and the disfigured brass face of one of our grandfather clocks. He
discovered a handful of blue and green marbles from the collection I had kept
in a carafe on the windowsill for the sun to shine through. They were blackened
but reclaimable, and although they were not unique or valuable, to me they were
priceless. At that time, with no tangible past, and no concrete future in the
shape of a new home, the marbles gave me a link with our previous existence,
and in a strange way, a feeling of security.
He managed to find something significant belonging to each member
of our family, except for my daughter. She was living abroad when we moved and
I had spent hours packing up her many books, unusual art posters, distinctive
art deco furniture, and all her photographs. We searched painstakingly for
something of Zoë's, but found nothing. The most heart-wrenching loss was the
three storey Victorian dolls house my husband had made for her, and which she
as a girl had decorated and furnished and cherished.
When it came to the insurance claim, having to list every lost
item was a torture in its own right. Falling asleep at night I would remember
something else, and think "oh no...." Trying to list our hundreds of
books became a black parlour game. Lying back in the bath I would remember yet
another book, and rush naked onto the landing, shouting a title down to my
husband before I forgot it. We did get up to 637 books, but since then have
missed dozens more.
Four years on it is still too painful to recall all the
irreplaceable items that we lost. It is not the money, although we did lose out
financially to some extent. What is
painful is the loss of all the trivial and substantial accretions of 25 years
of family life, our books, and some inherited antique furniture, all with
family connections and sentimental meaning. The plain, modest grandfather clock
we had bought for my father-in-law when he first became a grandfather, and
which we gave him a week before he unexpectedly died. The small chair my adored
grandmother had been given as a child, and which my sister and I would race to
sit in when visiting her house as children.
As an only child, and with no living family, my husband feels as
though he has let his parents down by losing their things. He feels brutally
cut off from his childhood and his roots, with nothing tangible remaining to
connect him to his past. Gone is the oak swivel chair which his father sat in
when he was resting from serving in his shop. Gone is the barometer that his
father used to tap first thing every day. Gone are his family photographs.
But the most bitter loss of all is that of the albums containing
all the photographs of our adult children when they were young. I can still
close my eyes and see many of these photographs, but I will not be able to turn
the pages and share them with our children and their children in later life.
Friends and family have kindly raided their albums and old packets of photos
for replacements for us, and this has been a great help. But so many favourite
family photographs are of unposed moments, of funny games in the bath, dressing
up in the back garden, or a child fallen asleep in a high chair, with a face
sunk into soggy Marmite fingers. Photos from others are posed family groups.
They don’t appeal like the tasty memories committed quickly to posterity by a
quick snap with that cheap camera you keep in the kitchen cupboard
I am sad we have no things with family associations to pass on to
our children. I had hoarded for any future grandchildren all the favourite
pre-school books, and the best wooden bricks and toddler toys. I thought I was
being frugal, and that in the future they would remind me of my children’s
babyhood. I had packed away the Moses basket I had lined for my youngest child,
and writing this I am in tears again.
It's common on suffering traumatic events to look for lessons and
meanings in the hardship. The practical lessons for us are easy: don't trust
anyone else to look after things that are irreplaceable, and be properly
insured for what you do put in store. I have also learned what is precious and
what is not: I can throw things away more easily, but what I keep I treasure.
Any other lessons are more difficult to work out. Two months after the fire, I
was diagnosed as having breast cancer and had a mastectomy. Compared with the
fire, that felt like a piece of cake. Does this mean I am an unredeemed materialist?
We didn't lose any of our family, so why are we grieving?
But I have learned another lesson. As an irrepressible optimist I
subscribed to Adrian Henri’s sentiment “Don’t worry, baby, everything’s going
to be all right.” Now I can admit the possibility that pessimists might
sometimes be right. I am more sensitive to others’ anxieties, more moved by
others’ hardships, more empathetic to others’ losses.
Our new house is now fully furnished, and I'm pleased with the
effect. And although it will be a long time before it truly feels like home, my
cluttered kitchen drawer is coming on a treat.