The task set for November by The Tynewydd Writer’s Group was a piece about memories; November just seems to be that kind of month. The Celtic New Year begins and the old one relinquishes its hold. All endings are beginnings; I like that saying, I’ve always liked it but then, as I’m fast discovering, I also seem to have the maudlin Celtic streak in spades! I apparently don’t ‘do’ light hearted writing very well but I like this piece so I thought I’d air it here before the November meeting rolls around.
As a child I spent many wet afternoons in the company of my grandmother and the big tin of photographs from under the stairs. Once upon a time the tin had held an assortment of Mr Peak Freen’s finest biscuits but by the time I made its acquaintance there remained nothing more than crumbs of the past.
Most of the faded creased snapshots were of people I had never met or heard of; the fond misty eyed smile raised by the plump aproned figure of my grandmother’s mother meant nothing to me. Selfish as only a child can be, I noticed only the photographs of my chubby, sugar-curled self or my almost unrecognisable laughing mother with sun burned skin and smiling eyes, the like of which I had never witnessed.
But in amongst them were also strange exotic monochromes of the pyramids in Egypt; The Nile in muted glory and native people dark as chocolate, their bodies glossed by the scorching sun. These photographs had been taken during the war by my grandfather, a time which, by all accounts was a terrible one. Yet my grandmother’s eyes would soften and she would reminisce with genuine longing for the time when her husband was absent from one years end to the next and she fed her children on cabbage and cakes sweetened with beetroots and carrot. I didn’t understand then but now that I’m older and perhaps just a little wiser, I do.
My mother’s fondest memories were of her days as a student nurse. It was hard then, she’d say, not like it is now. She would tell dreadful tales of swollen arms, inoculated then forced to shake thermometers until their owners wept with pain. She would laugh with glee at memories of aching backs, tender knees gained scrubbing floors and shifts which would bring about the immediate downfall of any government should they be applied to trainees of the present!
That time ended, she would say wistfully, with the admission of a handsome young man to the ward where she was on duty. Gaunt faced with his pale blue eyes and coal black hair, he looked like Dirk Bogarde, a heartthrob of the day, and stole away her thoughts of going on to see the world. She had intended to move from nursing to the army so that she might one day see those same pyramids from her mother’s biscuit tin for herself. Alas, love got in her way and, as is the method of all deceivers wore down her laughter and happiness and hopes for the future and replaced them instead with the empty ashes of regret. The woman in the biscuit tin changed from an open faced beauty to a tired eyed wife, mother, middle aged before her time and with nothing but photographs to remind her of who she used to be.
It left me with an aversion to cameras. Somehow, in my mind, to photograph a moment was to steal the spontaneous joy of its hope. To capture the lightning quick flash of time was to freeze it like a fly in amber; the resemblance was there, in perfect recognition but there was no life left. It could not convey what thoughts were dancing at the second the shutter clicked.
Now, of course there is a degree of regret. As I understand more the slipping away of memory and recall, I wish that I had provided myself with some prompts so that I too might relive the many moments of the past which have escaped. Perhaps because there was no such landmark as a war or a momentous assassination, my past has become a watercolour blur as opposed to a series of crisp snapshots. Like Monet I can give a good representation of the past, but if the account is examined closely, scrutinised by minds so much sharper than my own, it becomes a collection of senseless blobs. Distance is required for clarity.
Even such momentous occasions such as giving birth suffer from the clouding of time. Like the pain necessary to bring forth such a miracle, the details are forgotten. Only the end result is what matters. And perhaps that is why I have so few crystal clear memories. The past is no more to me than a series of pit stops on a long and, at times, weary road. Some of them were a joy, others not so much but all of them combine to produce the map of my life. The starting point has been long forgotten and the finish lies somewhere up ahead lost in the fog of the future. One day perhaps I will sit my own grandchildren down and answer their curious questions about my life. I will show them my meagre pictures of their mother in nappies and rompers reminding them that parents too were once children. Or perhaps they will not care at all; perhaps the future generations will have no place for memory or nostalgia. They will throw themselves forward into their desperate new world too caught up with wars and catastrophes of their own to notice the mumblings of those whose time has passed.
The biscuit tin is mine now; I am the only one left of my family. The faces fade just a little more with every passing year and too late I mourn the carelessness which made me never bother to learn or memorise their names.
The Chinese people believe that no soul truly leaves this world until the last living person has forgotten their memory. Perhaps those souls are free now, perhaps the chains of memory can be shucked and they can all rejoice in the golden fields of glorious youth. I look at them sometimes and wonder how long my own memory will be held once I have passed. I, like them, will be on my own path to the blue remembered hills of times gone by and the biscuit tin will pass to my daughter in turn. The faceless black and white strangers of her generations will curl and moulder in their nickel glossed casket until at last we will all return to the dust that forms the memory of time.