Here we are again – the fifth of November. My children are zooming around the house shouting the obligatory poem. No one can get the second verse right. At their age, I was never really quite sure what I was supposed to be remembering anyway – that you shouldn’t blow up the Houses of Parliament? – that it wasn’t a good idea to agree to guard 36 barrels of gunpowder in a basement? – that it was the one night of the year I got to eat hot dogs with onions and loads of tomato sauce and run riot round the church car park with my friends?
I am facing the same dilemma now; what am I supposed to remember? I have spent the past two weeks sorting boxes in an effort to make more space in the house for my family. In the boxes is my past, and when we are struggling to fit, my past is not a priority – we need space for today, not yesterday.
I watched today as the bin man emptied every last backup and computer disc from two undergraduates courses, my PhD and three postdoc jobs into his lorry; I had to stop myself from dashing out to get them back. But really, that is not the hard part. Most of the work on those disks has been published – I can hold up my peer reviewed papers, book chapters, thesis and they will fairly well summarise the career I once had in academia. However, the disks aren’t the things taking up most of the room; nor are they the things that hold most of the memories.
As I open boxes of undergraduate notes, memories pour back – experiments, people, lecture theatres, hopes for the future, bright prospects, exciting career directions. I remember nights in the student union, end of term balls, bands I went to hear, walks, rainy days, the thrill of learning new things every day, sleepless nights, expanding horizons, vitality. These boxes seethe with visions, smells, sounds of a past life now dead.
As I open boxes of baby toys and clothes, I smell those tiny bodies again, feel the heat from cotton soft skin curled against me. I remember the beginning of new lives, feelings of connection, contentment. Each tiny item of clothing reminds me of a day, a trip, an experience, an element of my children’s lives, a period in my life now passed never to come again.
There is a box of books from primary school, brimming with playground banter, cut knees, kind teachers, angry teachers. Memories of uniforms, school trips, and learning to divide numbers, read, write, play. I remember a home corner, balancing scales, friends, enemies, school plays, wax crayons. I have boxes holding memories of secondary school, guide camps, holiday clubs, trips, friends, correspondence.
I have an empty box. One box. One box that I am allowed to fill with memories. How do I chose what to remember? Very little of what I have saved over the years is because of its future usefulness; I have squirrelled it away because of the memories it holds. How do I chose what to remember? How can I come to terms with losing all those other memories, because without the triggers, they will never come back to me? I’m not finished the sorting yet. I have a week of time left, then it has to be done. Can I stick to my one box? The problem is that if I don’t, the today of our lives will suffer, and that is not a sensible option.
This last two weeks has been hard work. I felt down and not at all enthusiastic about heading to the woods for a bonfire with the children. I didn’t particularly feel like partying and definitely not ‘Remember, remembering’. I grabbed the marshmallows, hoping everyone would focus on toasting them rather than fighting, and we set off.
While Mark and I busied ourselves with the first serious bit of coppicing we have done in the woods, we watched the children feed the fire I had lit. They put on the kettle and collected the smaller branches we were cutting. Then when my arms had no more coppicing left in them, we all sat round the fire and toasted marshmallows in the glowing ember bed. I was glad we had come. Joe was grinning as he torched his marshmallow for the fifteenth time, Melody bumped hers into the kettle and knocked it into the fire, Amos toasted his Dad’s as he likes to eat his own marshmallows uncooked, Peta toasted and ate hers very slowly so she was the last with marshmallows still uneaten. A good afternoon; we made memories that will hang in the trees, memories that will not need storing in a box. Sometimes I have to remind myself that the future is more important than the past. My past experiences have made me who I am today, but in order to give my family space to enjoy the future, I need to let the memories go; I have to concentrate on making sure the future replaces the good memories I have consigned to the recycling bin.
English Folk Rhyme
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Guy Fawkes and his companions
Did the scheme contrive,
To blow the King and Parliament
All up alive.
Threescore barrels, laid below,
To prove old England’s overthrow.
But, by God’s providence, him they catch,
With a dark lantern, lighting a match!