For the thirteen years since the death of my mother a huge collection of 35mm photographic slides have been sitting in the garage on a shelf, waiting for me.
Having cleared out her house after she died, a task which took me and my two siblings the best part of a year, I couldn’t face looking at yet more of the past, so there they stayed.
It might seem to be one of those jobs that’s a gift to a situation like lockdown but I don’t think it’s that which made me start sorting through the boxes, stacked neatly with the little yellow cases, like gold bars.
Since the beginning of the year, my mother-in-law’s health has declined rapidly.
For the whole of lockdown, she has been in a home, unable to accept visitors until recently, when the doctor said she is probably nearing the end of her life.
Now she’s at home, in the room where my children had their bunk beds and where I sat in a chair to read my son “In which Piglet is surrounded by water,” every single night for months on end.
She sleeps most of the time, but something is awoken in me.
Recently, my daughter asked me why we had a book of Hitler’s paintings at home when I was a child and I told her I had no idea.
I have often told my children that my father would have been joyful to know them, but it doesn’t mean very much because he was dead three years before my son was born.
But through the photos maybe it is possible to find answers, to reach into the past and, if not bring it to life, to render it in something sharper and more vibrant.
“Have I ever told you about the time I got scared climbing to the top of a helter-skelter with my dad?” I ask the children over dinner.
“Yes,” they say, “often.”
It’s dispiriting when our favourite memories are barely even scratches on a page, unrecognisable to the generations which come after.
Then later the same week,
“You know the story about me coming back down the steps of the helter-skelter leaving my dad to ride it alone with all the kids?” I say.
“Yes,” says my daughter, wondering if I’ve genuinely got the front to tell this story twice in the same week.
“Well, I just found the photo of my dad hurtling around the bottom corner on his own,” I tell her, wide-eyed.
“Really?” She says, seeming quite interested.
“Yes! And the hilarious thing, which I hadn’t remembered, is that he looks as if he’s absolutely loving it. I can’t remember ever seeing a photo of him any happier.”
There are probably 100 more stories I can bring to life, and 100 more than that I will have forgotten until I see the photo.
Since my mother died I have cycled through a variety of emotions around the relationship I had with her. Then I have cycled back through them again, just to be sure.
A doctor friend of my mother’s said to me shortly after her death, knowing what an inability I had to push myself in any direction which might incur her displeasure, “If now she is gone, you feel less of a responsibility to keep her happy, she’s given you a great gift.”
To anyone else, it might have sounded callous, but he knew my difficulty with my mother was as much a problem with me as it was with her. His was an observation of deep love for my family.
The other gift she gave, and one I had hitherto grossly undervalued, was a habit of capturing everything on film.