When my gran was alive, I think it lived under her bed. It’s now in my mum’s attic room. A battered old suitcase. A valise. The kind with a hard shell and proper clips, not a zip, to close it. The sort you had to sit on to shut when they were overfilled, and then line up the flip down locks and hope for the satisfying click as they connected. Pink silk lining. The kind of suitcase used when planes had BOAC on the side and air hostessing was still considered a glamorous job.
The kind of suitcase with magic inside.
It’s highly possible that the suitcase that my gran had and the one in my mum’s house are completely different and always have been, but in the part of my brain that belongs to my childhood they’re the same, because their magic is the same. Both are filled with old photographs, letters and bits of lives gone by. Both exist mainly forgotten apart from occasional moments of nostalgic wonder. My grandmother’s was filled with the debris of three generations, and my mum’s is the same, the last of the driftwood in that one belonging to my sister’s and my own childhood.
I don’t have a suitcase. In the cupboard under the stairs however, I do have a couple of over-filled plastic bags. I got them out the other day. All my debris. Photographs from school, university, my childhood, pictures old pets almost forgotten, stubs from train and gig tickets, and letters and cards sent from friends and boyfriends. I used to keep all this stuff. Store it away. Safe to look back on in the future if I ever felt the urge.
In that battered magic suitcase I loved the letters best. The smell of the paper. The different handwritings that hinted at this kind of personality or that. The recounting of a snapshot of events. The way that the writing changed as the writer got older. The letters were the best, but the writing on the back of the old photos was second. Information that meant very little to anyone but those in the picture. The kind my gran would look at and frown for a second before the random description would jog a memory and there would be a story to recount about the faces and places frozen forever on that curling thick paper. Several lifetimes of stuff. Eighty years or more.
In my plastic bags, the stuff ran out about ten years ago I guess. The letters went first. I have letters in there from when I was eighteen, and maybe a few years after, but none since I was thirty. We don’t write letters any more. We send emails. Texts. Sometimes I save texts if they’re ones that make me happy. But they only ever live the life of the phone and then Poof, delete. Gone forever. I don’t remember the last time I wrote a letter. Not the sort that you write simply to catch up with someone and tell them what’s been going on in your world and ask what’s been happening in theirs. Why do we need to? Email. Text. Facebook. I know what people ate for breakfast, watched on TV etc etc blah blah. (God forbid we end up using Facebook pages as the suitcases of the dead. Mine is entirely flippant and unafraid whereas I am pretty much entirely considered and afraid of everything…bless the facebook personality. She’s much more fun…but I digress.)
The photos died out with the advent of the digital camera. We all fought it for a while – diligently printing them out – but not anymore. If they don’t stay on your phone, they go straight to the hard drive (and of course facebook, yfrog, twitter, whatever is your internet drug of choice). I don’t think there are any pictures in my carrier bags taken in the last eight years or so. C’est la vie. The world moves on. Everything is instant and immediate and so quickly forgotten. Like life itself. Here. Gone. Over. A cheeky wink from the eye of the universe, that’s all we are.
I’m not mourning the loss of ‘being remembered’. That’s not it at all. In part because no one really is ever ‘remembered’, by the contents of those battered suitcases. Everything in them is merely a representation of a moment or a person, and people lie as well on paper as they do face to face, if not to someone else, then to themselves. For example, in my plastic bags I found a letter and a Valentine’s card from a boyfriend I had when I was 20. If generations future were to find those, they would think he loved me so very, very much. In reality, he broke my ribs, picked me up by my throat and threw me down the stairs. Looking through lots of my photos, I realise I laugh hardest when my heart is breaking. How many of the letters and photos in my gran’s suitcase were the opposite of their truths? What was hidden behind the carefully written words of those letters?
Nothing in any of those battered suitcases are the ‘truths’ or ‘lies’ of a life. The truths and lies and grey areas are all wrapped up inside and die with us. As they should. We and our experiences are ephemeral. We shouldn’t worry about what is left behind and just get on with making the most of our time. Live the most we can. Love the most we can. When the sun finally decides it has had enough and packs it all in, the trail of who was who and who did what will be gone forever anyway.
No, the magic of the suitcases isn’t about us. It’s about them. The children that rummage, transfixed, through their insides. And it all comes back to story.
Story is the most important thing in my life. Essentially it’s the one part of my existence that I don’t tend to fuck up. I wake up thinking about stories and I go to sleep thinking about stories. The magic of my gran’s suitcase is that it was a time travel machine filled with jigsaw puzzle pieces of so many stories, that I could put together however I wanted.
As a child, sifting through the contents made me finally accept that there had been a real world out there before I was born, and people had lived in it and everything. They really had. The past was in many ways a more fascinating alternate reality than the future. There was treasure in it. All held in the suitcase. I would hold up an old picture and say, ‘Who was this?’ and my gran would look for a second and then nod and say, ‘Ah, that was my mother. When she was young. She killed herself, did you know that? She drank a bottle of Lysol.’ (I found out yesterday that it was my grandmother who had actually found her. She didn’t tell me that part as she put the photo back and pulled out another.) But the story stuck in my head. The why and the how of it all. So many bits of people in all that debris. So many bits of stories to mull over and imagine.
I don’t have kids. I doubt there’ll be grandkids sifting through the rather paltry contents of my old Sainsbury carriers (although maybe I’ll buy one of those old suitcases just in case), but I feel sad for the grandkids of the future. I want them to feel that magic and I’m not sure that the old people of forty or fifty years time saying ‘Oh look, here’s all my old hard drives, children. I’ll see if I can find a way to get them started and you can look through my old emails and Facebook updates,’ really has the same feel to it.
Or maybe I’m just a grumpy old Luddite….
(written on my lovely new iPad2….)