When my mother died in 2012, the fabric of my existence turned upside down, inside out.
In one phone call she was gone. There was a flurry of activity. No time alone to say goodbye. Her presence on Earth instantly evacuated.
Suddenly, all I had left of Mum’s physical form were objects—her objects. Those she’d touched and worn, those she’d cherished and used. And, as it turned out, those she’d ‘hung on’ to since the 1980s: hundreds of old bills and official notices, read, scribbled upon, in envelopes slit-open. Discreetly stored around the house in garbage bags.
All these things were united by the fact that her hands had touched them. They were a godsend. I was able to not only walk a mile in her shoes but feel her life as she had.
There are people who believe objects are magical: that they possess the identity of their owners, partly the reason why they find it so difficult to throw them away. (Perhaps unkindly, we call them “hoarders”). These objects are not just part of their world but part of them. They feel compelled to protect these things from harm and those who won’t understand their very nature.
There are meta-physicists who argue objects possess an “essence”—essential properties that make them intrinsically and necessarily meaningful.
My friend Darren believes objects hold our “energy”—that we impart emotions into things, affecting those we pass them on to. “Just because we can’t measure it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” he says.
In a culture which so often values the inanimate over the living and breathing, is there a place for a deep and abiding love of things? Could it be possible for objects to help us heal?
My answer is not “I think so.” I know so.
It took nine months to sort through my mother’s possessions, a journey that recon-figured the way I related to her now that she was gone. Sifting through 75 years of stuff, I inhabited the very loneliness and isolation that had so often kept us from each other. I got to see her life in macro. Fear and distrust in close-up. It was terrible and beautiful.
Her worst fear of being alone (she was a divorced single parent in the ’70s) manifested in the hoarding of private papers. She was too scared to let them go out into the world lest her business be known, her marital status shamed, her identity stolen.
Sifting through these things, I imagined what it must have been like to be so afraid—to feel like such a failure. “No-one wanted me,” she used to say about her harsh, neglected, 1930s upbringing.
Her objects became a road map into her experience. I hitchhiked through decades of clothes, kitchenware, linen, precious knick-knacks, notes-to-self. The highs, the lows, the yearning. Mementos of hope, evidence of sadness. The occasional piece of ornate china inherited from the stoic Coventry-born grandparents who’d raised her.
Then: sentimental tokens from my past, things I’d thrown off as a defiant 19-year-old, exhausted by her misery, desperate to flee the scene. She’d kept them all—books, letters, school reports, toys. Our shared life came into sharp focus. Our bond, over which we’d struggled and fought, was no longer abstract.