APRIL ISSUE: Memory Games

This month’s extract from The Cure For Sleep for subscribers on Substack looked at loss of loved ones through the things they had around them, inviting readers to share short true tales of their own. Here are some of those responses.

April extract

Looking, looking, looking. As in the memory games Granny would make on a tray for my pre-school self, whipping off the teatowel and daring me – quick! – to remember everything: thimble, nutmeg, queen of hearts. This time trying to hold her whole life in my mind

/…/

Understanding, only then, how strange and static my way of living had always been. How I began when young, through loss, to prize routine and everyday objects more than people. As if by loving a person in pieces, through pieces, to pieces, I could suspend time, stop sorrow.

The Cure For Sleep

Reader responses

My Grandfather Stanley

*
As I sit here thinking about my own experiences of losing someone beloved to me, I’m struck by how little I have physically—no sand timer, no binoculars, no beads. But I remember…

*
Blips and beeps and bells from the other side of the ICU curtain mixed with feet scuffling and squeaking across the floor. He was gone really the moment the aneurism broke free, but his heart was still beating at an incredible clip; strong; a steady green line on the monitor, here and gone all at once. I wiped a drop of blood from the corner of his mouth, and as the sun rose and my grandfather Stanley lay dying I held his hand.

*

I noted its squareness, thick knuckles, traced the gold band he’d worn for over 50 years, and I saw it for the first time: his hands were mine. Hands that held four children and grandchildren, and one great grandchild. That roasted lemon-stuffed chickens basted with olive oil and oregano over campfires. Fingers that tied flies before palms cast out over the water. Hands that planted two gardens of vegetables every growing season, watered, pruned, picked shiny green peppers. Other than photos I do not possess any objects treasured by him. He was buried with the compass he used to navigate forests, and I’ve no idea what became of his walking stick. But do I have his hands. My hands are the objects. My hands are the treasure.

Amy Millios

My Brother Mike

*

He was gone within 27 hours. There was no warning. It was a sunny evening, he was playing football, there had been no rain for weeks and the pitch was hard. We hadn’t shared a home for 10 years so there were few mementoes. Just some gifts from over the years but we were so young, I was left with more memories than things. All tinged with sadness. I looked for him in the streets where we met, gazed at the paintings he loved, listened for his voice at my side as I strode the hills or plunged into the Atlantic. Sometimes he visited my dreams and we talked. Often it was that he had survived the accident but his life had changed. 

*

The years passed. I held him close and kept going. I gave birth to my first child at the age at which he had died. My children had reached early adulthood when tragedy began to enter their lives. I started to think carefully about when, at a similar age, my own world had disintegrated and how memories of a wonderful life were shaped by sadness.

*

Now I found his beautiful voice on reel to reel tapes, loving letters in his exquisite script and photos of our childhood that, for three decades, had been too painful to revisit. I recorded interviews with my sisters, my mum, his friends, his son and we talked about how good he made us feel, protected and challenged and joyful, so alive. So alive. Even still. You never forget how someone makes you feel.

*

That summer a radio documentary I made about memory and Mike was broadcast. Some weeks later I was having a massage, a birthday gift from my kids. As I lay in the silent, still room a slight breeze glided across my bare legs and chimes suspended from the ceiling tinkled in an unexpected way. Afterwards the masseuse told me that we had had a visitor. A man. He had asked her to let me know that he was good and doing well and to say thank you.

Sheila De Courcy

My Mother

*

It was as if she was passing on a baton; a rich purple lidded tube that must one day have been handed to her and was now being handed to me. She ‘thought I might like it’. 

*

My home has always been full of my parents, from the box of his tools Dad put together for me that first Christmas I was married to the king-size patchwork bedspread Mum made by hand when she had retired from teaching. Each patch is a memory from the clothes they wore to furnishing I recognised; a family heirloom. The tools in our house now are always mummy’s tools, though first they were Dad’s, including the old tobacco tins full of nails and screws.

*

Most of the items of theirs that I possess are of practical use whether made or passed on but this was different. Inside the tube were a number of papers. Looking at them now, I seem to be looking at another life, separate from mine, yet like a pattern I am following. The first is her General School certificate, dated 1936, from Raine’s Foundation School for Girls, a Jewish School to which my mother won a scholarship in 1929. Her time as a scholarship ‘gentile’ is well known to me: Coming from a poor East London home, her attendance and success there, despite some of its traumas, impressive. However it was the range of subjects she passed that struck me. English subjects, yes, but written and oral French and German too. Mathematics I knew she excelled in, but Inorganic Chemistry, Magnetism and Electricity? Art: elements of colour and design, model drawing and freehand. And singing. Suddenly I seemed to recognize threads of belonging, interests shared over years becoming part of me.

*

When I look at them now, I imagine her going to school in her second-hand uniform; her nights studying in their tiny damp terrace house, practising the violin my grandmother detested; looking after her brother while her mother washed doorsteps for a living.

*

Another paper in the tube has a job application letter drafted on the back: ‘I have wanted to be a teacher since I was eight’. Eight; the age she was when her father died of cancer in a mental asylum. I resisted teaching but it was in my genes and I loved it once I started. I recognize those genes in my own daughter now she too is about to begin that process.

*

Only one paper is in colour: Moray House College of Education, Edinburgh, 21st June 1962. She was awarded an education diploma with merit which at last enabled her to pursue the teaching life for which she had longed. I was eight. Despite my resistance to the career I later came to love, I treasure the days I was able to go into school with Mum. The children loved her and flourished under her diligent care. To them, I was ‘Mrs Stewart’s little girl’, although I was twice their age. Sometimes I wonder if there is some kind of mycorrhizal network that ran between us, constantly building connections that fed into my life, nurturing me like Suzanne Simard’s mother trees. I am obsessed with colour, had a challenging school life, belong to a choir, studied maths to A level, became a teacher and create patchwork in a small way. 

*

The papers in my mother’s ‘baton’ are a glimpse of a life lived until hers had run its course. What has passed into my life is infinitely richer and still nourishes through objects and memories.

Jean Wilson

My Great Grandmother, Amy

*

The story we grew up with was passed on to me by my father, strangely, not my mother, her grand daughter. She, Amy, had been in service and fallen prey to the attentions of the master, or his son, or someone, anyone, and had become pregnant. Because of this, she was locked away in the crazy house until she died, nameless and forgotten. It’s what happened to unmarried women then, just one of those Victorian things.

*

Thirty years later, my work on our family tree uncovered a different story. My great grandmother was feeble-minded, deaf and dumb, and also a scholar, depending on which census you read. She had worked at the local mill with everyone else, lodged with various family members in a succession of tiny tied-cottages, swapping about here and there, weavers all the way down. The birth certificate named a father I could not trace, a name made up to save face no doubt, but she looked after her only child until he went to fight in the French trenches.

*

It wasn’t until she was forty-one that they took her away, just as they had taken her mother and her sister to a different asylum, the reasons unknown or concealed. She died inside that place after forty-six winters, in the spring following the birth of my sister; they could have met, but my mother didn’t know about her grandmother then, and realised only years later that she must have been ‘the old lady’ that her parents went to visit ‘in hospital’ on occasion.

*

My sister’s own daughter bears her name.

Sally Harrop

Dad’s Home

*

It was a beautiful hot day in August. Kilkee was sparkling and the heat had drawn people to the beach and pollock holes. That was the last time I saw my Dad. When he dived into the water our connection on this earth was broken. We came back to Dublin, my Mother and I, and it was to a house where his presence or lack of was
thick in the air.

*

At first his suites hung like lonely vessels waiting to be filled with his being. I kept his shirt for quite a while. I would hold it to my face and breath in his essence. As long as his smell still lingered he was somehow near. Letting go was not possible, he would be back. After The Vincent De Paul charity collectors had come and gone, and the shirts were no longer there, I waited.

*

My Dad the medical Rep must be on the road. His Hillman Hunter taking him to unknown places where weekends with us had been interrupted. At home there were copper and brass objects waiting to shine. Treasures he found in junk shops which he would spend hours polishing now leaning against the garage wall, green and sad a bit like us.

*

Yes that was our house: waiting, people, cats and copper. Most nights I lay in the dark knowing it would not happen, but believing it could; waiting for the sound of the White Hillman Hunter, willing it. The headlights turning into our driveway lighting up the garage door. Dads home. When the hard solid block of reality seeped slowly in I knew those lights would never shine again and I began my time of grief.

Louise Newman
%d bloggers like this: