I’ve spent quite a lot of time in the last month or so wading through a bunch of my parents’ ‘stuff”, following the death of my mother. There are different levels of ‘stuff’ involved here, of course, from a garage full of gardening tools to toothpaste. Different sorts of significance attach themselves to different types of ‘stuff’.
I’ve come to think of this process as akin to a form of personal, family archeology, as different objects provoke new questions, or new understandings of previously remembered events.
Once you have moved beyond the level of ‘stuff’ that is disposable (and this might vary, depending on how you feel), one way or another, the contents of one’s parents home seem to fall into two broad categories: material objects (including books), and ‘media’ stuff. Media stuff includes photos, but also in my case a large number of slides and negatives, and 2-3000 feet of 8mm cine film. Very little of this media stuff has been seen by me, or my sisters, I think, for three decades or so, at least. It has been living in lofts and cupboards, as is the way with these sorts of materials. I’m bringing it back to life, so to speak, having transferred 500 odd slides onto the PC, and have just had the cine film digitized (by a very nice man in Swindon who specialises in this – see SaveThoseMemories).
Media stuff has a distinct emotional charge – it evokes different memories, but also evokes memories in different ways. I’ve now seen versions of my parents I had never seen before, as well as movies of me as a baby which are the only visual record of me actually ever having been a baby. And I have never quite realised before how much movement and how much sound there is lying within a still, mute image.
Material objects, of course, can be very mundane – pin cushions, vinegar pots, tea caddies, African drums. They are, too, and unlike media stuff, fundamentally indivisible – and therefore potentially more contentious as objects of mourning. You can make copies of the cine film, and of the photos. There is only one vinegar pot, and I’ve got it.
This is all just a preliminary ramble, really, because I have an inclination to write a little bit more about some of the things that the media stuff is disclosing. It turns out, by the way, that ‘media archaeology’ is a proper grown-up academic field: see here and here.
on dealing with the objects and and photographs found after family loss see also “In the Dark Room” by Brian Dillon