Memory: that magic lantern show

I went to visit my Old Lady yesterday and she confesses – as she always does confess – that when she sits in her armchair, sometimes, of an evening, unable to see the television clearly, unable to read – her mind drifts off and random memories come back to her. She sees the exotic places she went on holiday, the adventures she had as a little girl and a teenager, her many cousins and their many wives (all dead now), colleagues she worked with, her parents, her grandparents…

Every time she tells me this she sounds anxious. She has lived a brisk and practical life and I suppose she feels guilty now for daydreaming.

And yet it was good life. She was close to her family, when they were alive. Early on she found a job she enjoyed, worked hard, studied in her spare time and made it into a career. She has had the courage – and the means – to travel widely. She has had the gift of making friends, and now she has a store of colourful memories to dip into.

My Old Lady is a bit of a hoarder, always telling me she intends to have a good old clear out. She never actually succeeds in doing this, but in her regular efforts to do so she happens upon air-mail letters from long dead pen-friends, invitations to dances in foreign capital cities, letters from travel agents in faded type, holiday brochures and envelopes full of dog-eared photographs, and these bring everything back.

Youth is the most beautiful thing in this world – and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children! [George Bernard Shaw]

I suppose it is inevitable that this should be so.

It is better that children start life afresh and that adults are not tempted to describe to them the horrors of old age. It is better that they dance through their childhood under the illusion that life is bound to go on in exactly this sunlit way forever. When I see on the news children in awful circumstances, forced to witness or commit atrocities, converted into adults before they have properly been children, this is what saddens me – that in having their childhood and youth cut short they have also been deprived of their capacity to imagine, and of the memories of Better Days which would have sustained them later, in times of trial and in old age.

So, my Old Lady tells me once again about her Magic Lantern Show and I once again, attempting to reassure her, tell her that something very similar happens to me. I tell her that when I am washing up all those cat bowls of a morning, and gazing out at the garden and the too-long grass, and the dew still on all those fallen leaves and faded hydrangeas, images and fragments of memories flash up, unbidden.

I don’t tell her, but mostly they are unhappy fragments, of my current life at any rate: I don’t seem to have her knack for happiness. But occasionally they are strange fragments – flashes of lives I don’t remember having lived, and faces I don’t remember ever having seen before; even, occasionally, visions of flight, swooping down over lakes or battlefields, or strands of music it feels exactly as if I am in the process of composing. All of which are so brief, dissolving instantly, so that all that is left is an impression, a memory of a memory.

I worked in a call centre for five years or so, at the broken-down end of my ‘career’. This involved sitting on a rickety office chair in a kind of plywood rabbit-hutch for seven or eight hours at a time surrounded by rows and rows of other rabbit hutches. We all wore headset and the calls came in to us automatically.

Our sole task was to persuade people to do market research surveys – no selling involved – but of course people never believed that. And so, every so often an irritable person answered the phone and you had to, basically, read a script to them, asking them if they would like to take part and then if they agreed asking them a whole string of questions so nonsensical that you wouldn’t have been able to answer yourself.

On short surveys it would be seven or eight hours’ non-stop repetition of the same five minute survey. On long surveys it would be perhaps one respondent per hour; twenty minutes of script-reading and typing; nothing to do in between. We were not allowed to read, do crosswords or to write down anything apart from survey-related notes, or a tally of the surveys we had done.

Most people did not last five years. Two years was considered by the employers to be a good innings. Memory, and imagination helped me to stick with it. (I needed the money!) During those hours my mind sent me a constant magic lantern show, like the washing-up show only more so. During those hours whole poems got written in my head, whole philosophies of life were considered, rejected, constructed, deconstructed and modified.

So when my Old Lady feels embarrassed about her daydreaming I want to tell her – but don’t know how – that the Magic Lantern Show is a gift, her reward for a life hard-lived. And when young people complain that they are bored I want to tell them to go out there and make memories, learn stuff, think stuff, see stuff, meet people, have adventures, visit places, take photos, save the tickets, save that straw hat, write a diary, record your impressions and store them somewhere. Make a memory box. Start it when you are seventeen.

Listen With Mother

It had sat in that same corner all my life – beside the window chair in the living room – my mother’s sewing box – and yet I had forgotten about it.

When I was a child she often gave me the sewing box to tidy, and I genuinely believed I was helping rather than – as seems more likely now – being kept amused. I remember sitting on the floor surrounded by cotton reels and cards of press-studs and hooks and eyes and being full of my own importance. I was helping. This goes back to the time before things went wrong, before Mum started lying on the sofa and crying for most of the morning instead of dusting. The time before Nan started coming along to help, and Mum started taking two aspirins every four hours for most of many days.

In those days we would listen to Listen With Mother together on the radio. She would sit me on her lap and I would start twiddling a lock of my hair in sheer anticipation. What would it be today? See-saw Marjorie Daw or the one about the four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie? We had to have teddy with us. The radio lady always asked us if we had our teddies with us, and whether we were sitting comfortably.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

But back to the sewing box. I think I took it all rather seriously. I not only sorted out the cotton reels but wound in every loose end and secured it in the little notch at the top. I not only tidied the button box but threaded the buttons into a long string using one of Mum’s darning needles – little buttons at one end, all the way up to giant coat-type buttons at the other. Duffle-coat toggles were a bit of a worry…

I had to go back there about a week ago – I think I wrote about it – to remove Ex’s paintings as the house is now being sold to pay Mum’s fees. I was dreading it, and it was pretty dreadful, in some ways. Arriving half an hour before the removal firm man, I sat on the doorstep for ten minutes unable to go inside on my own. When he arrives, I thought, I’ll usher him in first and he can confront the ghosties! But then the neighbours started making casual passes back and forth. I realised they didn’t know who I was and assumed some sort of Bag Lady. Maybe they were about to call the police and have me removed… so I plucked up my courage and went in.

I busied myself packing Nan’s blue half-a-tea-service, which I had promised Mum I would save, and which nobody else seemed to want. I remembered the tea service from Sundays with Nan and Grandad. When first Nan and then Grandad died the half-a-tea-service (presumably my uncle had the other half) moved along the road and took up residence on a Welsh dresser in Mum’s living room. I had brought newspapers with me, and carrier bags.

Take anything you like, my sister said. The house clearance man was coming to take the lot. Probably been and gone by now.

I found a little album with a few random photos in it, of Mum and Dad and me maybe fifteen years ago, exploring the local chalk-pit that had been turned into a tourist attraction (or that was the idea) by the addition of wooden walkways and stairs. I have no photos of Mum and Dad – indeed, no photos at all of any part of my life – somebody else seems to have had them all at each step of the way, so I put that in the bag. I found a grubby old “Knitting Patterns” album containing not knitting patterns but recipes – all Mum’s favourite recipes in her familiar handwriting, recipes torn out of women’s magazines and annotated. Little interjections, mostly with her favourite exclamation marks

Delicious!

I substitute sultanas for mixed fruit!

360F, middle shelf!!

I thought I might share a few of the recipes with you, in occasional future posts. A way of Mum living on and in a small way contributing to the future, if you see what I mean.

And then I spotted it – the sewing basket. It was very, very heavy but I brought that home too. It sat at my feet high up in the removal man’s van. You need to be a veritable mountaineer to get into one of those things, and I all but landed in a heap trying to climb down out of it at the other end.

And then there was the dilemma. That evening I sat with Mum’s sewing basket on my knees and shed the few tears I ought to have shed a year earlier, at the thought of Mum to all intents and purposes gone. Mum in that home. Mum not at home. The house I grew up in not my home now. Everything off with the house clearance man to be distributed, no doubt, among charity shops.

But what should I do with the basket? Part of me wanted to sit on the floor, take out a whole lifetime of bits and bobs, half-cards of bias binding, folds of orange ribbon, samples of hessian (whatever did she use that for?) and of course the button box which, when I was a child had seemed a huge and magical container and now seemed to have shrunk to a hexagonal toffee tin with pictures of rabbits and 1950s postmen on the front.

Part of me wanted to leave it exactly as it was, so that the muddle inside should be Mum’s muddle, her memorial, a little bit of her practical, creative mind. In a way I wanted to keep her boxed, rather than bottled.

The dilemma continued for some time. Should I use the sewing box – as she would probably have wanted – or leave it undisturbed? After all, they were not really magic, the rusty tin of pins, the darning needles rusted into the tartan pincushion… I remember her teaching me to make a version of that pincushion for my Brownie sewing badge. They were just old things.

And then today I decided to design something to sew. Now, don’t laugh. There is a reason for it but I haven’t got time to go into it right now. I designed a Sad Cat Hat, taking the pattern from a sunhat I bought at a market stall on a recent visit to Canterbury, cutting out paper pattern pieces from the front cover of the Radio Times and pinning them onto an old pillow case for my “trial version” of this unlikely object. And then I thought, I no longer have any dressmaker’s shears and the kitchen scissors are too blunt. Maybe Mum has some?

In the bottom of Mum’s sewing box was a perfect pair of dressmaker’s scissors and – and this is the strange thing – left handed ones. Now, how does that happen? Mum was right handed. I’m left-handed.

And it seems to me that Mum – wherever she hides, inside that poor old grey head – was trying to get a message to me. Take the middle way. Use what you need but only when you need it, leave the muddle mostly, but not entirely, undisturbed.