Season 3, 005: Tell the story of an object in your home (or one you remember from childhood) which holds great and uncertain emotional power...
I have an old brown leather purse that belonged to my Nan. She died when I was 11 or 12. I;m 59 now and the purse is still in the drawer next to my bed. It has a certain smell and it takes me back to when I used to visit her with my mother. She was in her 80's then and I would sit in front of her patiently like a dog waiting for her to give me some sweets. She always wore the same brown zip up slippers and an apron and her hair would be tied back. A sort of Doris Lessing style although she would never have known that. I can see her wrinkled face now and see her hand dipping into her apron pocket. I used to play with her skin on her hand to see how long it stayed standing up. I do the same with my mother sometimes now. She had one of the old-fashioned hearing aids that she would turn off. Her apron smelled too but it was a good smell - one of warmth and love.
Inside the purse are some old pennies in tiny compartments held together by tiny clasps.
One day she was there and the next she was in a home and then she came home for a time and then she was gone. I was too young to see her in her last day or go to the funeral. She's still here in my heart and I'm starting to well up a little now as I type. I'm going to get the purse out again later and take a look and a smell. Go back and see her again. I miss her.
I spotted it with a kestrel’s eye. In a flash, I was on it. I’d been hovering in the museum shop – ‘Street Life’ they call it. It was on a trip ‘home’ with our then young children. A toy bus, but not just any toy bus. Navy blue and cream livery rushed me back to my childhood. EYMS: East Yorkshire Motor Services. And then I noticed the details. A 1970s Daimler Fleetline double-decker: my era. ‘59C Circular via Preston/Hedon’: my route. My ‘not my’ village named. Registration plate AFT 784C. I can’t be certain of that accuracy.
This bus took me home, every school day in the second half of the 70s. A circular route for people who never left. Dad’s patients. Shopworkers and shoppers. But a basket empty of school friends for this direct grant boy, the only one at the ‘posh’ school from my backwater village. Left to my top deck devices, I discovered a love of language forms and structures – irregular verbs, subjunctives, indirect speech. Yes, indirect speech, which I see now as a metaphor for a largely remote, if unhostile, teenage existence, where nothing seemed direct, close, or intimate. Instead, I found companionship in the reliable patterns of accidence, and security in the sounds of the ancients.
I’m looking at my toy bus now. It sits in pride of place on a middle shelf, beside a pot of raptor feathers, one of which is from a kestrel. I used to spot them from the top deck of the 59C, on the stretch beyond the lime trees. The bus is a quasi-talismanic die-cast treasure I’d give away last of my possessions. It tells me where I came from, where I went to, and – fittingly for a circular route – what I never managed to leave behind.
My mom and I would have terrible fights as is typical of most teens going through the growing pains between childhood and adulthood. Our fights would devastate me, leaving me feeling very unsafe. I would go to my grandparents house and spend the night often during our fights. I slept on a floral upholstered sofa in the living room, under a crisp white sheet, folded in half and a blanket. I would turn with my face towards the back of the sofa and pull my arms and legs up into a semi-fetal position, cuddling the back of the sofa. I would stare up at this painting in an ornate gilded frame. The painting was of several women and men dressed in Victorian clothing standing and sitting around a Victorian room talking to each other. I spent sleepless hours escaping into this painting. I wondered at the feel of the blue dress on one woman and what the man whispering in the ear of another was saying to make her look so engaged. Sometimes if I half closed my eyelids, through the blurry tears, I could see myself in that room, talking and laughing with those people. When my gram passed away, I took the painting and it hangs today over my sofa, where my little granddaughter looks up at it and asks me to tell her what the people are saying to each other.
Written by Fran Pollard. I'm from Surrey UK, l live in Cambodia, but currently in Portugal for a couple of months.
Frayed and burnt at the ends, the red thread coils on the wooden table I sit at. I haven’t discarded it, but I don’t know why I keep it. It lays dormant.
Her eyelids flutter like she’s dreaming, plumbing the depths of another world, at end of the video call. She’s propped up on a pile of books to level the angle of my chin. It’s evening, moon rises in the darkening sky; shadows sweep the walls. She takes her time. She opens her eyes, trancelike, and shifts her focus to mine. “Your grandmother is here.”
I reach for the thread and spiral it around my index finger.
“She liked her freedom. Grey hair, slightly curly. Short; rounded figure. Eyes exactly like yours. She was a loner, like you.”
51 days earlier, I’m in Nepal, looping string around my wrist. In the Linga Devi temple in Kathmandu, before the heat of the day, I make a promise: to honour the divine feminine- her strength, her power, her creative force. I make a 40 day commitment.
The medium speaks slowly, purposefully. “She wants you to put the red thread back on your left wrist.”
“Put it back on as a sign of commitment: to yourself; to loving yourself, to protecting yourself; and as a sign of your connection to her in blood.”
I sit cross-legged atop a white washed wall. My back to the 50m cliff drop into the Atlantic a mere meter behind me. I face Maria: Senhora da Rocha, in Portuguese- the lady of the rocks. Mother Mary to me; the Virgin Mary to my grandmother with her Catholic upbringing. The snake of red thread in my hands. In a different temple this time, I reclaim the serpent as a sign of my commitment to myself, to her.
These objects, these pieces of clay, paper and stone. My talismen. My connections with the past, control of the present, and hopes for the future. Silent, inanimate objects, that scream for attention when I least expect it.
First is a palm-sized fragment of pottery I found on the beach, wave-washed between water and sand. Made from pale clay, it is unrefined, coarse grains visible in its thick broken edges. But once flipped, there’s the embossed face of a man crowned with thorns. I touch and hold it, though I’m not religious. I pray with it clasped tight in my hand. When all hopes seem extinguished, it’s my go-to ‘you never know’ lucky charm.
Beside it is a framed black-and-white photo. Four people standing at the brow of a hill, descending from left to right in size and age. First is mum, then my sisters, Christine and Diane. I'm on the end, the little one, half their size. We’re wearing flared jumpsuits, flower-power dresses and happy faces. Thumbs raised. It’s the way I want to remember us, ‘the girls’ posing for dad and his precious box-brownie.
Last is a cat. Tiny compared to the other objects, two-centimetres high, jet-black with ruby-glass eyes and a silver collar engraved with wiggly lines. It’s a nod to some hoped for Irish gypsy or witchcraft family blood. Carried everywhere by mum in a kid-leather purse as she dodged doodle-bugs during the London Blitz. Now it's mine.
Three ordinary objects with extra-ordinary significance.
But only to me.
I Left With Nothing
I brought nothing from that place, I wanted nothing from that place. What I did bring I have long since set aside, sentimental tokens that were quick to lose their value, false currencies from a previous world.
I could have taken a piece of glass, something from that tall cabinet where garish clowns looked out with mocking humour, but she had polished them weekly until there was nothing on their cold, smooth surface to offer any emotional purchase, no chip nor flaw that made them any easier to break.
I could have taken something from his box of tools, sweat-browned and polished by his hard and calloused hands, sharpened to a safer edge or point, better to cut and shape white pine or straight-grained hardwoods, but they had only ever been dull instruments that played music loud enough to drown the cries.
I searched the rusting biscuit tins of phtographs, looking for one that still reatined some sweetness, but they were bitter with dead relations who stared out at guilty cameras with eyes unblinking and unconscious of those years to come. There were some of me that I wanted to rip and scatter but chose to burn with scathing laughter.
In the end I left with empty hands, a hollow heart that boomed like the bell that warns of a dangerous tide, and skin that bit thicker than the one I wore before, better to contain what feelings might remain, impervious to cuts from the splintered glass of clowns or the strop-sharp points of ancient chisels.
‘The world was moving
She was right there with it
And she was’.
The dust sticks to the velvet, round and around. The needle glides on to the oil slick vinyl, a familiar crackle and the music builds quietly. It’s a satisfying ritual remembered.
My Auntie was the coolest. My mothers youngest sister, she was closer to me in age. My godmother, charged with looking after me if anything happened to my parents. To my 11 year old self, she was a confident whirl of red lipstick, leather pencil skirts and fishnets. Slightly punk hair, eyeliner. Musky perfume mixed with cigarette smoke. A red beret and bright 80’s jewellery. Sang in a band. She used to babysit me & my sister and bring her spanish boyfriend & her Talking Heads records. The vinyl was exciting, weighty, full of future possibility. They would sit and discuss the latest song and then she’d sing along in our lounge and I was amazed by her. I’d tell my friends about this band they’d never heard of. Super cool.
Years later, I took her to see David Byrne play at Brighton dome and it was joyous, alive elation.
She left suddenly, dramatically, horribly. Gone in a second. They said she wouldn’t have known. Cerebral haemorrhage at 49 while her husband walked the dog.
When she died, I needed to find a way to be close to her, to believe that she was real, that she existed. To hold on to something physical, to feel her. To hear her. To also remember myself before the violent shock of loss.
The Talking Heads vinyl with its musty yellow cover and dusty surface still felt exciting. Carefully slid out of its cover. Make sure you don’t scratch it as the needle goes down, a forgotten act. I hear the familiar crackle and opening notes and I am 11 years old, watching her sing in her red hat and lipstick, visceral and alive. Ready for the possibilities before death and tragedy took over.
Thirty years ago I visited Skye with a friend. It was a raggle taggle holiday, we slept in a damp, wheelless camper van marooned in the garden of my friend's friends house. One day we visited the site of a cleared village, the people thrown off their land so the laird could bring in sheep. I got out of the car and was struck by a wave of sadness and longing so strong that I didn't want to go further, the residual emotional charge was like an elextric fence keeping me out. My friend went exploring. She came back with a strange piece of rounded granite with one shiny flat side. It was the size of a large egg. She gave it to me and for the next thirty years it was placed on a shelf in every one of the many, houses, flats, rooms and sheds I lived in. I felt a strange reverence for it, that small granite enigma.
One day watching some tv archeology programme I realised what it was. The knowledge was sudden, profound and immediate, I went over to the shelf, picked it up, noted for the umpteenth time how well it fitted my hand and knew it to be a hand quern. A woman on Skye had used it daily to grind grain on a flat stone, hence the flat shiny side. I could see the dark mark her thumb had made through many hours of holding it, her hands must have been about the same size as mine.
A few years later I looked at it one morning and had another sudden realisation - it wanted to go home. It was a struggle to let it go, we'd kept company for half my life, but i contacted a museum in Skye, picked at random. Wouldn't you know it they had just got funding for an exhibition of hand querns. It was part of a wider movement to acknowledge and document the daily lives of women on Skye through the ages. So I boxed it up carefully, wished it 'Mar sin leibh agus gabh turas sàbhailte' and sent it off. Now its back home in Skye, gone but never forgotten.
Thank you so much for your kind words, Tanya! They mean so much to me - your encouragement always does. I will act on your final nudge, be assured.
Of the many blessings since I committed to creativity and decided to do the Travel & Nature Writing MA, becoming a small part of what you do in this project has been one of the richest. Your example - it started with reading TCFS - has shown me what it means to write with bravery and sensitivity.
Either today or tomorrow my finger will hit ‘Submit’ - and send my MA portfolio to its destiny. Within it sit some pieces that began life as responses to your prompts. They are pieces which are dear to me. Thank you for inspiring them - you are their midwife, I guess. Paul x
On the landing windowsill in my grandparent's house, there was a red glass chalice, shaped like a brandy balloon, but much larger. The light shining through pooled red on the white gloss sill. It was just the right size for a child to put a hand into – very carefully. This was precious.
And I have a memory of putting my hand inside it, and drawing it out covered in blood. My hand, gloved in blood. It’s one of the most vivid memories of my childhood.
The thing is, it’s not true. It never happened. None of the adults remember it, and there’s no way I could have hidden all that blood. Or not panicked and run for help. It’s a strange, false memory. I don’t know where it came from. A dream? A fantasy? A mixture of the image of red light on my hand and other memories of bleeding (I stood on a cucumber frame, I fell off my bike…). It’s strange that this image - so visceral, so real – has somehow inserted itself into my brain and lingered there. How did that happen, and why? Why?
My parents were evicted from my childhood home in their fifties, rendering them homeless.
The object that holds most power for me from that house is a robust white jug with blue stripes and a pure white handle. Extracted from the texture of that house into my possession for years now, this jug is a kind of portal weighted with the love and pain of my childhood. There are times when I look at it and all I see is a void, a hollow glaze, a no thing thing.
My mother kept our baby bottles warm in this jug. It feels as though I have used it for nothing in particular and yet, it has had many uses. I have used it to rinse my children’s hair at bath time, I have used it to store their bath toys, to pour champagne from on my 40th birthday, and in latter years as a holding vessel to soak reusable menstrual pads.
Now it is an ornament I guess, and sits innocuously beside the bath.
I have guarded the jug closely, (despite myself as I thought I was above nostalgia), having announced more than once to my kids, “Careful of the jug!”
“Because it means something to me”
How vacuous that must sound I think, how mealy and anaemic an explanation . And yet to tell them more would break my heart.
I know it doesn’t make sense but there are times when I will the thing broken. I suppose it’s something to do with the familiarity of loss, the inevitable finality of things, the desire to get it over with so I can add it to the grief section of my heart and stack it neatly among the bones of the other losses, quietly shushing it up.
Hessian jewellery box on the dressing table
As a child I remember dusting my mum’s dressing table every week. Placed in front of the bay window in my parents’ bedroom, it contained all her treasures.
I gingerly lifted each ornament, her gilt-edged mirror, brush and comb set and her bottle of Blue Grass perfume, wiped them with the duster and rearranged them.
I liked all the ornaments, but it was the cylindrical hessian box, edged with lace and pink roses, that stayed in my mind. I had crafted it at Sunday School. Made from a toilet roll holder and a piece of cardboard, I recalled my mum smiling as I gave it to her. It symbolised my love for my mum who was and is always there for me and my family during happy and difficult times.
As an adult I found a similar jewellery box. My ear-rings were stored in it until Ace the dog discovered it one day. At first she chewed the edges, so I put it back together. After she chewed the base I hid it in my drawers.
It would be easy to blame Ace for the messy situation involving my son and his ex-girlfriend, but she is only one factor.
After several months in our care, she has settled down and become a loving dog with minor issues. Instead of chewing every piece of paper and object of value to me, she merely grabs something and releases it.
Let’s hope the situation my son is experiencing will loosen soon too.
I have kept two cherished objects from my childhood in my China cabinet, purely for the memories they invoke. Both are reminders of how my family offered sustenance. Sweetness was withheld, and savory treats were relished.
One was a 1950s Mid-century Shell Pink Milk Glass Candy Dish gifted to my mother by an old maid, not very fond of children. There was something about this fancy candy dish that was off-limits to the five children in the family. It was only for show, with specially wrapped hard candies on a kidney-shaped glass coffee table. It's funny how things were not child-proof then, even if they were dangerous. There were strict rules about not touching or not going near things that could cause harm. This candy dish has a bittersweet memory because it was very tempting to look at. My mouth would water just tasting the imagined sweetness that was always an arm's length away. Sweetness was forbidden and always withheld.
The other object was a Green Depression Glass Sectioned Relish Tray with Scalloped Edges. This platter was my father's favorite; he cut up savory vegetables and arranged them colorfully for special occasions. He would use it for pickles and olives or cheese and crackers. He always invited us to try something salty or spicy. This green glass tray became a centerpiece for our formal dining room holiday dinners. Of course, we remembered our manners sitting around the table. But father passed this beautiful dish, relishing the sight of his family seated around the festive table.
Marcescence – retention of withered and dead plant matter
White oaks and beech often hold onto their leaves long after other deciduous trees have let go. From a distance, these leaves are dark shadows of pensive birds that should have migrated long ago. Crows gone speechless. Ravens morphed to stone by a wicked spell. Vultures stuck waiting for the dead. In January winds these dry leaves tremble. They click-clack against each other, ecstatic castanets.
I hang on to a license tag from my last dog to die, feathers from birds I’ve never met, books I’ll not read again. I still have size 6 slim, ripped and worn Levi’s from when my son wanted to be a farmer. A Goats in Trees calendar from 2011 is still nailed to a barn wall. Two deer skulls rest where I sit in the woods. I still have an old necklace featuring John Travolta from Saturday Night Fever. I keep recipes in my mom’s and grandma’s handwriting that I’ll never make. I hang onto a rock my brother hodge-podged a picture of Jesus onto in bible school just because it feels weird to throw a picture of Jesus into the garbage. I hold onto the rock and Catholic guilt. I still have my pregnancy test from Emily, baby teeth from both kids, a raccoon tooth, many snail shells and squirrel bones. I still have a marble stamper with a monkey on top with my name in Chinese, a gift from a man my mom was having an affair with. I have a Newton’s Cradle with a missing ball from another grandma and a cardigan knitted by my great grandma.
I kept pictures of men who didn’t have the right to leave, but did anyway.
A SANDSTONE MEMORY
I am on a quest of sorts, collecting the threads that make up the garment of who I am.
This is not an object, as such and not from childhood, for I was passed 40 when I first saw it and it is where I return when I feel alone.
I read an essay by Jo Sweeting (thank you Tanya) in which she mentions the Tibetan word “shul”, which is a mark or trace made by a thing that has passed by or through.
On a sandstone slab, on a high mountain in the Monongahela State Forest, deep in the ancient Alleghanies, there is a carefully maintained pecked outline of a man.
He died there, struck by lightning hundreds of years ago.
And each spring his descendants, walk up the mountain, and renew the outline, each in turn lies down in the lichen covered rock, speaks his name, so he will not be forgotten and pecks out a piece of the outline. I am the last, my aunt hands me a the hammer and chisel. I finish the outline then I lie down on the ancient ancestor stone, and repeat his name. I whisper the name of my mother mending what was broken .
We return home in the dark and over fried chicken and home canned peaches they share, in the rich hill country dialect, all the family stories, filling in the empty space, filling in what was missing.
I wouldn’t say I was a hoarder, or even a collector, but I like old things, things that mean something, beautiful things. And sometimes I find it hard to let them go. A recent house move prompted an appraisal of all the things we own, and many things had to yield. Including some of the old beautiful things.
One side of me was hard and harsh and minimalist, and the other side wallowed in fecund nostalgia. The sides came to a compromise. Some of the things I could not relinquish weren’t even mine: I’d kept them because they’d meant something to my mother, and she’d kept things because they’d meant something to her mother.
Mum couldn’t get rid of her mum’s broken and entertainingly poorly mended bud vase, and neither can I. Ditto her father’s old ashtray, used to hold the silver sixpences he saved for us, the commemorative cricket-ball lighter he never used to light his pipe. Ancient photos, monochrome and tiny, with a thin, wavy white border. Family members, smart in scratchy uniforms, or crisp suits, or white satin. Holiday snaps, some Victorian seaside town brimming with textile workers, diligently annotated. Soon no-one will know any of these people – I only know a few.
There, then, are the fine gossamer threads of flotsam which weave me a path to my mum, and to her mum and to various ladies and gents, some young, dead in a war, some older than Time, and back, back, clinging to fragments of meaning.
What then, when I die, and no sentimental children to pick up these threads? No thing of intrinsic value, no thing that means anything to anyone else in the whole world. How quickly, easily we forget. Two generations, three perhaps, and the threads are cut.