Treasures, Mysteries and Memories – Part 1

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There’s something horribly invasive about going through another person’s belongings. Even when that person has passed away or been placed, like my mum, into full time residential care, sorting through their things feels a terrible breach of trust and privacy.

The task is heart-breaking, insightful, uncomfortable, sometimes very funny and occasionally truly astonishing. It’s an eye-opener into another person’s life, what they treasured, what they thought mattered, and a task I strongly believe would be incredibly sad to be left in the hands of a stranger.

St Joseph's school blazer badge.How would a stranger recognise the meaningful things? How would they recognise that the simple white-gold ring shoved into a box alongside a dozen worthless pieces was actually my mother’s original wedding band? How would they know that old, creased black and white print was a rare photo of my mother with her adored father, or that cloth badge, scrappily cut from a blazer, was her school badge from Saint Josephs College in Penola where she was inordinately proud to be a student? Without knowledge of the life through which they were sorting, how would someone distant from a person’s life recognise any of those stories? They wouldn’t, and so much would be lost because of it.

It was a privilege to go through my Mum’s things. It was also acutely frustrating. I always knew she was a bit of a hoarder, but until we began unearthing box after box of everything from greeting cards to strange little inscribed books, immunisation charts, to forests worth of papers on family history and cut-outs for scrapbooking, I had no real concept  of how bad her hoarding was. Hoarding that had deepened as her Alzheimer’s worsened.

Queen's coronation scrapbookThe exercise was akin to an archaeological dig. Her office took me and Dad four full days to excavate, her bedroom and the spare room two days each. Soon, the hallway was piled with boxes of papers for recycling. Great plastic blocks of scrapbooking gear, which must have been worth many hundreds of dollars, if not more, were stacked along the dining room wall for dispersal. The dining table was strewn with stationery, miscellaneous photos and things we couldn’t quite figure what to do with. Mum’s scrapbooks of the Queen’s coronation sat on the table in limbo for days before I decided that I couldn’t throw them out. I filled large tubs for myself and my brother, jumbles of items meaningful only to us and our parents and, we hope, future generations. We filled the household wheelie bin cleaning out her ensuite the second day. From then on we switched to sturdy garden sized rubbish bags which grew rapidly to form a glossy black mountain in the garage.

It was, to put it bluntly, a slog.

But, oh, there were some treasures, and mysteries too. Also incredible joys and funny-sad things. And many, many memories.

In this series of two blog posts, covering treasures and mysteries, and memories and oddities, I’m going to show off a few of the curious items we found, and reveal a little about their history and importance to Mum or us as a family.

TREASURES

While there were some pretty astonishing finds, a few stood out. Items I never knew existed that, when uncovered, caused us to blink and  shake our heads in amazement.

Like Mum’s adorable baby booties. In one box, buried at the bottom, we discovered a photograph. Not knowing who it was of, I consulted Dad. Much to my amusement and some muttering from Dad, it was of a fellow who’d courted Mum nearly 60 years ago. Why the photo ended up with the booties is anyone’s guess.

Mum's booties

Mum's white booties.

Speaking of courting, Mum kept all Dad’s letters from the 50s when he’d skipped off via ocean liner on a great adventure to Canada, the USA and Mexico. They made for incredible reading, although Dad didn’t quite agree. I think he was a tad embarrassed by his romantic younger self. But more on these another day. They’re too juicy and fun to let slide with just a photo. I’m going to write about them – with Dad’s approval, of course.

Letters from Dad to Mum.

Still on the subject of Dad, here’s him on November 3rd, 1973, walking (on the left of the photograph) with the Duke of Edinburgh when the Duke came to visit Mount Gambier and took a tour of the Valley Lake. Dad was Chairman of the Lions Youth Affairs Committee, which at the time organised the Duke of Edinburgh Awards Scheme. This was a seriously big deal in Mount Gambier – the Duke’s visit, not my dad being committee chairman, although I am proud of him for that!  – and Mum kept all The Border Watch clippings from the event. One article breathily reported that Equerry to the Duke (Major B. Herman) sampled a biscuit from Elizabeth’s Varcoe’s cookery display and that 100 people turned out at the aerodrome to greet the Royal aircraft. What fun!

Dad and the Duke.

This is one of my maternal grandfather’s certificates from his days in the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, aka the lodge, dated May 1954. Isn’t it amazing? And he was a knight, too! While there appear to be still Buffaloes lodges operating, it looks like all the south east SA ones have folded.

My grandfather's lodge knighthood

We’re not a religious family and yet Mum seemed to have a lot of bibles, including this one with newspaper clippings of significant family events pasted in. For me, this was a fantastic treasure. I learned things!

Bible

Bible

As was Mum’s and Dad’s wedding album a treasure. The photos were wonderful, especially those of my grandparents who have all now passed away. Don’t they look great? Check out the size of that cake! We found Mum’s wedding dress in the top of her cupboard.

Cutting the wedding cake.

I’m not sure where this Kigu compact came from but I do have a strong memory from when I was a child of Mum showing it off to friends to much oohing and ahhing. I suspect it was either my grandmother’s or great-grandmother’s but I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that it’s beautiful. I can understand why people collect these.

Kigu compact.

MYSTERIES

I have yet to solve this one, and it’s driving me a little mad. Tucked away in Mum’s office was a small leather bound book of poetry by William Gay, inscribed inside from someone who was appreciative of the “bonza day” they’d spent with Jessie in 1919. Who the recipient and the giver are, and how it came into Mum’s possession I have no idea and neither does anyone else. And Mum, who would know, can’t tell us. It’s very frustrating!

The mystery poetry book.

I also found a strange gold pin, the design of which seemed to represent something. Initials? An association? I posted a picture on Facebook and the mystery was soon solved. It was Weight Watchers badge, and likely my grandmother’s as Mum never did Weight Watchers that I was aware of.

My Nanny's Weight Watchers pin.

Mum was never a reader either, and yet there were books. A 1940s copy of Black Beauty, another of Treasure Island. But this one had me flummoxed. It’s a 1957 Thriller Picture Library edition of Rob Roy “told in pictures” and cost 1/3, or 1 shilling and threepence. The comics were were published in the UK twice a month or so, and featured classic tales such as The Three Musketeers, Robin Hood, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Gulliver’s Travels and many more. Why Mum thought this particular edition was important is a mystery. The cover is missing (she has sticky-taped a printed-off one to the book as replacement) and it’s not in great condition, so it’s not exactly valuable as a collectible. It’s still kind of cool though!

Rob Roy Graphic Novel

This box of slides and film definitely won’t be staying a mystery. We’re all hanging out to find out what’s on the film. None of us have any idea. We didn’t even know it existed!

Box of slides and its mystery film.

These are just a very small sample of some of the things we discovered sorting through Mum’s belongings. I hope you’ll join me for part two where I’ll post photos of some of the items that rekindled forgotten memories, as well as a few of the more quirky items we found.

If any of you have been through a similar experience, I’d love to hear about it. Did you find it heart-breaking or heart-warming, or was it a combination of emotions, as it was for us? I think one of the hardest parts is knowing what to keep and what to toss or give away. I still wonder if we made the right choice with some items.

For more information about Alzheimer’s Disease and to help fund research into this awful affliction that steals so much from us, please visit the Alzheimer’s Australia website.

14 thoughts on “Treasures, Mysteries and Memories – Part 1

  1. AvatarTanya West

    Such wonderful memories. Reminded me of when we went through my dad’s things after he died. Heartbreaking at times, but some wonderful surprises. Forgotten little presents, cards, some truly ugly ties (and he hated ties) and hand written notes on books, prayer cards and napkins. The story of their life and the story of people who meant so much to them continues.

    1. Cathryn HeinCathryn Hein Post author

      It IS heartbreaking, Tanya, but it’s also an incredible insight into someone’s life. There are so many things you discover. Little memories that we’ve perhaps forgotten but our loved one has treasured. As you say, it’s the story of their life. Sad and wonderful and every emotion in between.
      Thanks so much for sharing your experience. I appreciate it.

  2. AvatarHelen

    Cathryn
    What a beautiful post when we lost our Dad I had to go through all of his things and the dog and I cried while we did it but we also smiled and had to decide what to do with all the things he had old Christmas cards from lots of ladies LOL just as well Mum wasn’t there that day and my Dad did love to go to the races and I am sure he had every race book from every meeting he had been to and what could I do with those yes they were recycled then again 4 years after that we lost Mum and again oh the things Mum had she was such a hoarder I still have stuff from her that I go through and wonder 🙂

    Have fun
    Helen

    1. Cathryn HeinCathryn Hein Post author

      Thanks Helen. LOL about the old Chrissy cards from the ladies with your Dad. That’s funny. The racebooks your dad collected reminds me of all the travel brochures Mum had hoarded. I can at least understand your dad going back over horses’s forms and winners with the racebooks but old not these. She probably wanted them for photos for her scrapbooking but once that was done surely they were for the recycling?
      Ah, tis all so interesting

  3. AvatarElizabeth Ellen Carter

    Thank you so much for sharing these special memories with us. I remember going through the house after my mother passed away.

    My sister is not the sentimental type at all and if it had been left to her, much more would have been thrown away. I got to be the custodian of photo albums and a few other precious bits and pieces and it’s wonderful to now have my teenage niece ask me for more photos and information on her late grandmother.

    1. Cathryn HeinCathryn Hein Post author

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Elizabeth. Thanks for sharing your experience too. I, too, suspect I’ve kept a lot more than my brother would. I mean, I probably shouldn’t have kept Mum’s scrapbooks of the Queen’s Coronation but I just couldn’t bring myself to throw them out. I have no idea why!
      I don’t think we appreciate some things until we’re older either. I found things that were given to me as a child and I’d forgotten about and left lying in my room. Mum had gathered them safely up and stowed them. Now I have them back and can see how precious they really are.

  4. AvatarBernie Tichbon

    Loved the read Cathryn. Having done the same thing with our mum I recall how every little find was like another emotional roller coaster ride. Being such a large family we were able to pass belongings and memories amongst us. Mum was a hoarder as well, we laughed when we came across balls and balls and balls of wool, there were boxes inside boxes, handbags inside handbags and even suitcases inside suitcases…. and it went on and on.. You are right when you say how uncomfortable it makes one feel having to do something so invasive. And there were tears, stories, yarns and laughs. On reflecting it’s all good not bad.. Lots of love Bernie xxx

    1. Cathryn HeinCathryn Hein Post author

      Hi Bernie, and thanks for dropping by!
      I wonder if it’s a little easier with a big family to go through things? There’s a greater chance of someone remembering the importance of an object perhaps? I felt a bit alone with Mum’s stuff, even though Dad was there and you, Maxine and others of course. There was so much I wanted to ask her but it’s mostly too late now.
      Nevermind. As you say, it’s not all bad and the memories are still there. Although I really would love to find out the secret behind that green book of poetry!

  5. AvatarPamela Cook

    You really did find some treasures Cathryn. For some reason the baby booties really touched me. They’re in such beautiful condition. And the photo they were found with got my writer’s mind in a whirl! Plenty of writing material here for you when you feel able to tackle it I’m sure. Great post.

    1. Cathryn HeinCathryn Hein Post author

      We had no idea they existed, Pamela, and couldn’t believe it when we found them. I can only assume they were never worn because, as you say, they’re in pristine condition. The photo was indeed an added bonus. Dad was so funny when I showed him. Even after all these years the affront that another man might be keen on Mum was there.

  6. AvatarBarbara

    Hi Cathryn
    Thank you for sharing. My Mum died when I was in my early 20’s and my 2 brothers had already emigrated to Australia so DH and I had to clear out the house along with my Mum’s sister … I also became custodians of the family photos and my Father’s medals from the Second World War as died during the war when we were babies. Of course, there are a lot of photos from when my parents were young and we don’t know who they are lol.

    1. Cathryn HeinCathryn Hein Post author

      Oh, that’s an early age to lose your mum, Barbara. How sad. It’s lovely that you kept the photos. We had the same thing trying to identify people. Dad knew a fair few but there were some that had us flummoxed. That’s great about the medals too. How poignant.
      Thanks for sharing your experience.

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