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….)
April 25th, 2011 at 9:19 am
Very well put. Now where’s my cupcake?
April 25th, 2011 at 10:38 am
Striking post. With a great last line. I want to zoom in on that segment about your ex-boyfriend but I’m at a loss for what to say. Just, sorry to hear it, I suppose, yet that seems so ineffectual and a pale version of what I feel.
You do seem to hint that your online self is a fiction where I’d argue that it’s real or rather no less real than any other part of you. The way we are when we’re on our own, and especially if we’re low, feels like it’s the most real us but we’re so much more than any one the thing. The you on Facebook, the you with friends, with colleagues, on your own, it’s all one great bundle. I had someone recently assume they knew me because they knew me on twitter, thought I’d react as gently to a snub in real life as I would online and that pissed me off. Made me re-examine how I appear on twitter and made me a bit bored of how I am on there.
I kinda got out of the habit of twitter because of it but if I say it to you, I must say it to me as well: the person on twitter is part of me. I’ll go back when I want to put those clothes on again.
Yesterday my sister wanted to get my mother a photo I’d taken. I suggested we buy my mom an iPad. But instead my sister is going to print it out – and my mom is going to be disappointed. Not from the lack of iPad so much as from how the print won’t be a teeny 3×4 faded-colour shot of her in the distance, the way she thinks photos should be.
April 25th, 2011 at 12:06 pm
Ahh I so love your blog posts. You should be a writer, you know. heh
I too lived in boxes hidden under beds and boxes kept on shelves at the back of wardrobes. There was a box of jewelry my grandmother had that I would feel compelled to take out and re-examine every so often. Somehow, in spite of all the photographs and letters and many many many postcards, it was the jewelry that held the most important ties to the lives that were. It was all inherited or gifted and because those were expensive items, it meant that a lot of thought and care and meaning was present in them, like some sort of invisible magic that would speak to me as I twirled rings far too big for me on my tiny fingers. My grandmother would tell me who gave her what piece and then tell me about that person and what they had meant to her and how this or that item might one day be mine. But not that necklace or those earings – they were for my mum or my aunt. And like you with letters and photographs, I now don’t wear any jewelery at all. A lot of my important stuff got stolen when I was in my twenties and it shook me so much I decided not to care and wear jewelry any more. People still keep giving me little bits and pieces and there is now a new box of trinkets I could take out and examine and remember who gave me what and why but there will be no children or grandchildren to share those stories with. I don’t mind. I always wanted all the stories all for myself anyway. 😀
April 25th, 2011 at 12:26 pm
I’m loving hearing other people’s stories here and on FB in response to this blog..great x
April 25th, 2011 at 3:43 pm
I really believe that this blogging-stuff we do will become the ‘found suitcases’ of 50 years time. I feel it these days, when writing my own blog. I feel the eyes on someone not-yet-born upon the words…
April 27th, 2011 at 1:03 pm
You need to commit bloggery more often, Ms. Sarah.
You and I will leave our stories behind but, as you say, that’s our public face. In the old days I saved a lot of letters I received, but never copies of what I sent…until the 1990s when I started writing letters on my computer, then printing them out and mailing them. I still have those on my hard drive. But the ranks got thinner and thinner through the 90s until 2000 when I went, for all intents and purposes, exclusively email. And those vanish into the aether.
As for the letters on my hard drive, many are to writers, some no longer among the living, but I can’t open the earliest because I used a now-defunct program to write them.
I keep them anyway, to remind me of the days when used to communicate in complete sentences.
April 27th, 2011 at 2:36 pm
Thanks FP…but even our books may stop being so permanent as ebooks take over…just downloaded The Keep to my iPad!xx
April 27th, 2011 at 5:26 pm
Ah, but Sarah dear, ebooks never go out of print.
Enjoy “The Keep.” Loving “Shadow of the Soul.” I’ll finish it on the plane to Austin tomorrow. Planes seem to be the only place I can read for an extended period these days.
July 10th, 2012 at 9:25 am
My grandmother kept her photos in a cardboard box. The predominant theme was food. Pictures of big spreads for birthday’s, anniversaries, Christmas. Probably the result of rationing during wartime.
Terry has scanned and stored all our photos onto hard drive from which we had a Photobook made for his parents. At first they thought we had sent some rubbishy magazine until they realized what it was. They were thoroughly delighted with it. These will hopefully become the new suitcases, cardboard boxes of tomorrow for the grandchildren. Something touchable.