It's funny how two of my very favourite quotes (from two of my favourite novels) are both comments on the past, and both the first and last lines of their respective books. The opening line to The Go-Between by L P Hartley; "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." And F Scott Fitzgerald's final line in The Great Gatsby; "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
I've been reluctant to write this blog post. I almost wrote something like it last September, and I've thought about it ever since. Firstly, I like to keep things light on my blog, and not mire it in negativity or talk about anything too personal. Secondly, I try (unsuccessfully!) not to dwell, I've been doing a halfway decent job of distracting myself with feel-good movies and happy music and spring cleaning and new schemes (I even resorted to Father of the Bride 2 the other day!). Thirdly, writing words isn't my thing, I'm much happier trying to unravel my thoughts into a picture, and I'd hate to express myself so badly that I come across as corny or melodramatic or mawkish. Then again, it's just one little blog post on one little blog that barely anyone will read, there's no point getting precious about it!
My Mum died last September, and then, almost eight months to the day, my Dad died; that was just over a month ago. My Mum was sick a long time, so we were as prepared as it's possible to be, which isn't very much. My Dad lived a long and healthy life (although would never admit to being old!), but died suddenly and unexpectedly. He was diagnosed in early-May, and given maybe two months to live. I was still trying to break through the residual numbness from losing Mum, to get a grip on this new development, when he died, just over two week's later. It still feels surreal. It's weird not having them here. They filled a huge space with all their quirks and foibles, opinions, stories and habits; all the things that amused and enraged me, and that I love and miss. Heaven knows, to say they weren't quite perfect is an understatement, but there was a lot of good in them too. Anyway, I don't mean to write them a eulogy here, we've done that already.
I don't know how many of you reading this have lost a parent, or parent-like person in your life, or someone you've known and loved a very long time, but it really pounds you with the realisation that time whizzes by with scary swiftness - and I thought I already knew that, but I didn't. One minute I was riding home on my green dragster (with the glitter seat) to watch Bewitched while Mum made cupcakes (there were always cupcakes), and next minute the internet's been invented, and I'm sitting at my computer trying to write something impossible to articulate about my parents dying, and I'm in my forties now, and couldn't possibly ride a three gear bike uphill, and I don't have any cupcakes. I do own the complete box set of Bewitched though. And I have a nice cup of tea and a digestive (and a 15 gear mountain bike in the shed, covered in cobwebs).
These two people, for better or worse, were the bedrock of my childhood, and now they're gone. They were an integral link to my past, where I was formed - the things we experienced together, the things I was too young to remember, the things from before I was born, and the things from before they were born, that they were told, and so on - that link is gone, and the chain is broken. It's sad to think that when my generation is gone, no one will remember the Yardley English Lavender-scented old ladies going to the shops in white gloves and floral hats, and men in braces wearing trilbys with feathers in the band, and bread wrapped in waxed paper, and big leather car seats (with no seatbelts!), and pocket money spent on Japanese tin toys in brown kraft boxes with brightly coloured labels pasted on them that always promised that the contents would be much more thrilling than they actually were.
Some of the younguns amongst you might be rolling your eyes at the "When I was a girl..." stories, but when I was a girl (ha!), I loved hearing about the weird and colourful people from my Mum's childhood, and stories about how, in a pre-fridge age, the ice man would bring blocks of ice by horse and cart, and how you'd buy all of your groceries by weight at the corner shop, even things like biscuits and tea were scooped out of big jars into plain paper bags. The second-to-last time I saw my Dad, we talked about the time he escaped a pub brawl by jumping from a first floor balcony into the back of a truck. He always had stories, every time you'd see him, there would be stories.
I like to collect old things. Not only is the past a foreign country, but it's like a grown up's version of Fairyland, mysterious, magical and elusive, so it's a thrill to own physical souvenirs from this mystical place. I collect mid-twentieth century magazines, and have a collection of old postcards, and various other knick-knacks. I love to trawl flea markets for hidden treasure, especially old photographs and ephemera for my collages. It was during a flea market excursion a few years ago that I came to a little epiphany that has influenced my artwork ever since. There were rows of beaten up, dusty old cardboard boxes full of the tatty remnants of estate sales; envelopes, receipts, tickets, photos, postcards, along with tins of buttons, badges, and other trinkets. Normally this would make the collagist in me hyperventilate with joy, but I also felt sad thinking of the people who collected these objects for reasons that had gone with them to their graves. The people in the photographs, once loved enough that these little portraits were kept and treasured, but whose names and identities were now lost, or at least disconnected, from these dusty relics. I remarked to my friend how one day it would be us in those flea market boxes, and he told me to shut up and stop being so morbid, and that it was time to get brunch. But the thought stuck with me, and ever since, I've loved to use vintage ephemera in my work, and draw from vintage portraits. On some level, it's like a little affirmation that these people were once here, that they were important, and in turn, when I'm gone, I was here too for a while.
Looking through the cupboards in my Dad's study, wondering what to do with all his stuff (he was an avid collector too), has been, naturally, really sad. He invested so much time in his various collections and interests, things that were so important and all-consuming to him, but that, albiet involuntarily, he has now let go, and so much of their significance has gone with him. It's sad, but also somewhat liberating to remember that you can't take it with you. What's the use in having a conniption when the cat vomits on your new rug? I don't mean to suggest that it's pointless keeping Christmas cards because one day they'll be heaped in boxes in a flea market, but sometimes, if you don't keep it in perspective, stuff can weigh you down. Losing my parents has made me feel a little adrift, as though my anchor's gone, but along with sometimes feeling lost, I find my way forward to feeling free, not because they're gone, but because losing them has helped me sift out the things that are important from the things that really aren't, and the important, intangible things don't end up in flea market boxes - you carry them around with you, and although you take them with you when you go, the people you love inherit some of them too.