Wisdom//

Unpacking a Life

Reflecting on the meaning and memories that fill my Nana's home

Osobystist/ Shutterstock
Osobystist/ Shutterstock

Is it just me or has anyone else ever undertake the mammoth task of emptying a house? Actually, my family did the majority of the heavy lifting before I got involved, I’m just like an architect who arrives after the labourers have left and takes credit for the work.  

There are towers of packing boxes in the building that my Nana called home. It’s just a building now, vacant, still, and heavy with coldness. A ray of sunlight spews in from the upstairs bathroom and throws itself like a guillotine down into the hall. The dust dances in its luminescence and for a moment the movement makes me forget that nothing else stirs in this house.

There are piles everywhere. 

Piles of notebooks and diaries she kept. 

Piles of sellotape. 

Piles of plates she ate off. 

Piles of plates that were too good to eat off. 

Piles of African art from that time Grandad went to Zambia. 

Piles of CD’s that came free with the Daily Mail. 

Piles of books that came free with some other paper if you collected enough stamps. 

Piles of cushions she sat on – years of cushions, their style changing from frivolous to opulent to orthopedic as her age forced her to sacrifice luxury at the altar of utility. 

The piles of her things are like little tombstones to everything that was and is now gone. They cast obscure dark shadows across the floor and tables. Each one is a landmine that explodes once observed. It detonates inside my heart and the shards of memory open the wound that’s been trying to heal since she died. 

I try not to cry, letting the sadness build up like a hot flush. The skin on my face gets so red it feels like my cheeks might burst like a sausage under a grill. 

What am I meant to do with all this stuff? Is this what we become? Are we eventually just piles of stuff that nobody wants? Things that are too sentimental to toss without consideration, but not sentimental enough to cherish and adapt into an heirloom. Am I really going to pass on these 7 rolls of sellotape to my children and request that they do the same? But it’s perfectly good sellotape, I can’t throw it out. But I can’t use it either because it feels vulgar to wrap presents for people who aren’t my nana in sellotape she couldn’t take with her. 

She left an Estee Lauder moisturizer. She rarely let me use it because she’d tell me it was ‘a euro a squirt’ and my young skin didn’t need it. I pocket the brown bottle knowing that seeing it go to waste would make her angrier than me putting it on my face. Besides, I’m a year older now than I was when she died. I never asked her at what age I should start investing in expensive face creams. 

We’re getting a skip. Skip – it seems like such a playful word for what is going to be one of the most violent undertakings of my life. I’m going to fill a skip with things my Nana loved. Then someone else is going to buy her house and do whatever they want with it. 

When I was 4 my mother bought the house of my best friend’s grandparents in Mallow. Julie didn’t talk to me for weeks because we got rid of her Grandad’s vegetable patch. I always thought she was being petty, refusing to understand how sale by private treaty works. But now I have a new level of understanding. 

Maybe if I ask nicely they will keep the table and the throne-like chair where she’d sit and tell me what was on sale in Lidl this week, taking 30 minutes to eat a slice of toast. She always left me the crusts. Always. 

Maybe they’d keep the formica worktops if I told them she still had the receipt from 1979. 

There’s a sub-perceptible scent of her Jo Malone perfume still lingering on her pillow. If I bury my face deep enough I can still catch some. I take the pillow with me. I stand in the hallway of the house for a silent eternity. The sort of silent eternity that only granddaughters and deceased grandmothers can build between themselves. I decide there’s plenty of time for packing up her life. It took more than 50 years in the house to gather all the things I’m going to part with. I don’t have to clear it in a single day. 

I close the door and hope the emotional landmines don’t follow me home. I pull the straps of my backpack so tight that it’s like a hug from behind. My nana was never a hugger, I can imagine though, and I can pretend.  

Originally published on https://www.independent.ie/

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