I moved into my present apartment seven years ago, and my six crates of papers moved with me – directly from one closet, where they had squatted undisturbed for five years, to another, where the same fate awaited. For almost two decades, these things have followed me around, and I’ve never had the slightest inclination to go through them.
Then last week, in a fit of January decluttering fervour, I decided to reclaim my closet. Everything came out into the living room, where it seemed to me an achievable aim to aggregate these six crates down into a single container. I could probably do it in an hour, I thought. Four days later and here I still am: surrounded by papers, trying to weigh the value of a letter from my mother’s then 17-year-old brother to her in 1967, and whether I should keep receipts from my tax return in 1998.
How do people do this? Decide what to keep and what to junk? I come from a long line of hoarders. But, even so, the situation I confront with these six crates is ridiculous. Birthday cards from people I haven’t spoken to in years. Random newspaper cuttings clipped for me by my mother: Helene Hanff’s obituary; a review of a play about Van Gogh from 2002 that has been sitting unread in my closet for 20 years. Cuttings I kept myself, for “historical reasons”: the front page of the Independent when Diana died; bizarrely, Louise Woodward on the cover of the Mirror (the headline was “Stitched Up”). From May 1997, “Blair’s Britain is born.” All pointless, yet poignant with age.
The further down I go, the weirder it gets. A receipt for fertility drugs for $1,776 – which I kept out of sheer incredulity, having rocked up at the cash desk of the pharmacist in 2014 thinking I’d be on the hook for no more than $29.99. Down, down I go. My mother’s record-keeping was meticulous and, from this historical distance, exhausting. In one folder, my school reports going back to nursery. (As a three-year-old in 1979, I can inform you, I was “making good progress but inclined to be rather tense” – nothing changes.) It gets worse. At the bottom of the third crate, job references from my mother’s employer for a bookkeeping position she held for a year at the South African Mining Journal, in 1956. (She was, I read, “an intelligent, cheerful and satisfactory worker”.) Everyone in this last exchange is dead.
There are a few treasures. Photocopies of letters written to Iris Birtwistle by her old friend Muriel Spark – which Iris, I now recall, gave to me 20 years ago to spite Spark’s biographer. From 7 August 1950 – in Spark’s long, looping hand: “August Bank Holiday and all it implies finds us both somewhat weary, having no garden & park…” A silver dollar from 1865, which I discover, thanks to the internet, is worth $30, $3,000 or nothing at all. Some share certificates leave me excited, before I remember I sold the associated shares six years ago. Ah, shit. And then, towards the bottom of the third crate, the honking great memorial candle given to me by Amersham crematorium after my mother’s funeral in 2003. I’ve been lugging it between addresses ever since. Even at the time, I remember thinking, what am I supposed to do with this? Put it in the window? It’s enormous and has her name on it. I call my children out from their room.
“Look,” I say. “This is your dead granny’s memorial candle. We can’t throw it away, so we’ll light it.”
“Why would you want to throw it away?” says a child, boggling.
“Because it’s ugly.”
We light it. Seven-year-olds regard the past differently: as more mythical and simultaneously more porous. Candle lit, one daughter chats to it, fetching her most precious items to hold up and show to her dead granny. A sister regards her critically. “Why are you talking to her? It’s not like she turned into a candle.”
A letter from the IRS from 10 years ago letting me off a huge penalty; definite keep. An untitled poem, given to me by a friend, by Tahar Djaout (“Silence is death / If you speak, you die / If you are silent, you die / So speak, and die”): keep. Ticket stub from the Empire State Building from 1999: bin. I am so servile that anything looking vaguely official goes into the “keep” pile, which means the Insight Into Industry “certificate of achievement”, issued by my high school for the momentous achievement of going on a year 11 trip to Aylesbury sewage works, will be my children’s to treasure in perpetuity.
Ugh, the letters. So many letters. From my mother’s seven siblings, none of whom, at the time of her death, she had seen for more than 25 years, feverishly keeping up appearances until the end. “Won’t you visit? We’d love to see you.” “Maybe next year; won’t you please consider it?” On and on it goes. Five crates are returned to the closet. After four days, I’ve managed to whittle things down by only a single container. And I am one step closer towards my dream of owning a shredder.
Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist