Thursday 18 October 2018

A life in a biscuit tin - by Lu Hersey

It’s coming up to Samhain, the Celtic fire festival that marks the end of harvest and the start of the dark half of the year. A time of bonfires. A time to remember your ancestors and to honour death.

With the dry weather ending, I decided to rescue a few things that had been dumped in the garage when I moved here, including an old biscuit tin I thought was full of holiday snaps I needed to sort through. But it wasn’t.

It turned out to be a tin full of my grandmother’s memories. All the things she’d kept with her, even when she went into the nursing home. A tin filled with photos, recipes, addresses, postcards and letters, marking all the major events and things that mattered to her over her 100 years of life.

It’s strange to look through someone else’s life in a biscuit tin. It feels voyeuristic, reading personal things that don’t belong to you. Yet somehow they’re a part of my life too. Part of the family history.

My grandmother came to live with us when I was about 7, and she was the closest thing I had to a sister, even though she was 85 (she had my mother when she was nearly 50. She thought she just had wind, but it turned out to be a baby). 

Grandma always wore a hat

Grandma and I shared the back seat of the car on journeys. Sometimes we squabbled like sisters. We even shared hotel rooms on holidays (I swear she kept her corsets on ALL THE TIME). She always had a supply of fluff covered Fox’s Glacier mints at the bottom of her copious black handbag to give me to stop me feeling car sick. She was happy to play I spy for much longer than my parents ever would. She told me stories of life back in Yorkshire when she was a girl, almost on a tape loop, the same family stories cropping up time and time again. It was only later I found out the things that she didn’t speak of – the child she lost. The passing of her 13 siblings. The death of her husband, my grandfather.  

But all the memories were in the tin. A black-edged card for Bessie, the daughter who died aged only two. Photos and letters from her siblings, all older than her, most of whom where long gone by the time I was born. The cards and bereavement letters she kept when her husband died, along with his life-saving medals (he was a superintendent at the local swimming baths) and a dried rose from her wedding day. Family recipes in a little recipe book, written in her copperplate writing, learnt before she left school at twelve to work in the mill. An address book filled with the names and places of people who are no longer with us, many I recognised from the tales of her childhood back in Yorkshire. Her hat pins - it was very rare she went out without a hat.

As I put everything back in the tin, I thought about what I’d want to keep with me. How would my tin be different from hers?

No wedding photos. Photos of my children, definitely. And grandchildren if I ever have any. Photos of my parents and grandparents, yes. Photos of my cat - yes (Grandma had several of her favourite cat in the tin – his name was Nobby. I know that even though I never met him.) No recipes – I find them online. But what else? I’d probably keep a Neolithic grinding stone I was given as a child. Some special shells found on a beach years ago with my mother. Some tiny stalactites I found deep in a cave. A set of runes. Some sea glass… my grandmother called them jewels. I still can't find sea glass without hearing her in my head saying, ‘Ooo, you've found diamonds and emeralds! Marvellous!’ 

Would I put in copies of books I’ve written? I’m not sure I’d want to read them again. Yet Mamwyn in Deep Water is based on my grandmother – okay, Grandma wasn’t a selkie, but the way Mamwyn talks is how she talked. Writing Mamwyn was my way of keeping her alive. 

So here’s a seasonal exercise to mark time passing. To honour death – and life – at Samhain. Imagine you have a biscuit tin (maybe even buy a biscuit tin and eat the contents while you think about this). What memories do you want to keep with you? Which ancestors and descendants do you want to remember? When you come to the end of your life, what do you think will still be important to you?

Lu Hersey


Rowena House said...

What a humbling exercise to think about - when it's all over, what will have mattered? Oh, dear. Tears will flow!

Joan Lennon said...

I love your grandmother - thanks for this, Lu!

LuWrites said...

Thanks Joan - I loved her too! And yes, Rowena - am wondering if maybe NOT leaving a tin is a better idea after a friend commented that she'd found 4 tins with 4 different sets of relative's memories in when she cleared her grandmother's house! Or maybe all of us will be time capsuled this way one day....

Anne Booth said...

What a beautiful and moving post. You have set us a very thought provoking exercise too! Thank you.