Waiting and remembering

During a train journey the other day i got chatting with my colleagues about our grandparents and their homes. One of them said that her grandmother is a hoarder. Her house is jammed solid with everything she’s acquired over her life: regardless of whether she could have any imaginable use for them in the future. Indeed, many of the items are irretrievably broken.

This got me thinking about my maternal grandmother. Nana never married and lived almost all her life in the family home. After her parents died in the late 60s their bedroom was simply shut up. My nana and the one brother who also remained at home already had a bedroom each.

As children we were never permitted to go upstairs and I came to feel – in some ways to fear – that my great-grandparents were still up there, especially my great-grandma: probably because her personality pervaded the house. Yet I wasn’t aware of the bedroom itself until the early 90s, when I went over with a friend to do some cleaning. My nan had become quite frail and her eyesight had deteriorated, so the house was covered with dust that she just couldn’t see. We asked her if she had a hoover and she told us there was one in her mum and dad’s room. That was how she described it, even a quarter of a century after her mum and dad had ceased to exist.

When we walked through the door it was like stepping back in time: heavy wooden dressing tables, still laid out with her parents’ ornaments and photographs; a newspaper or a cutting from a newspaper (I forget which) from the 1960s, or possibly earlier. Eeriest of all, the bed was still made up. I remember being weirdly frightened of it: the image of my dead great-grandfather laid out on it kept flashing into my mind. Strange because it was my great-grandmother who was last to die.

We found the hoover in a corner along with a pile of other items, such as a set of kitchen scales, many of which were still in their packaging. By the time any of their children or grandchildren were wealthy enough to afford to buy them things to make their lives more convenient they were past using them: not even the rosary, brand new and sitting in its box. We got the hoover out and switched it on. It spluttered feebly but didn’t suck up any dust, so we gave up and returned to dusting by hand.

Thinking about it, that bedroom was only an extreme manifestation of the atmosphere which characterised the whole house. Downstairs in the dark living room the dresser was also set with photographs which had been there since my great-grandparents’ time, the most important of which was a picture of my nan’s brother, Arthur, who’d been killed in the last few weeks of the Second World War. A great wooden clock ticked away next to his photo. Arthur was in the RAF and, as was so common with airforce deaths, no body was ever found. My great-grandmother never accepted he’d died. She was still waiting for him to return home from the War on the day she died nearly a quarter of a century later.

Somehow it seemed as if the waiting continued even after her death. As a child I’d look up at the picture of “Uncle Arthur”, in his jaunty RAF cap, and imagine him coming up the path just as young and handsome as the day the photo had been taken. At which point “Great-Grandma” would come rushing downstairs to the door to welcome him, just as she’d done when his friend, who she’d mistaken for Arthur, had come to report him dead.

A few years after the cleaning expedition my nana died and the house had to be cleared so it could be returned to the Council. In just one day the spell was broken: the time capsule bedroom was dismantled; the photos, including “Uncle Arthur”, were taken down and put away. The rosary was later buried with my nana. I don’t know what happened to the clock. Another family lives in that house now, one which is unrelated to ours. I sometimes imagine Arthur returning, having finally found his way home, and discovering that no-one is waiting to greet him. It makes me feel sad.

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