Family & Education

The stuff of which memories are made

Susan Reuben looks back at a fond memory...and reveals an embarrassing secret


A few years ago my husband Anthony gave me a parcel. In it was a single table-mat, featuring a rather twee Victorian painting of a coach and horses waiting to be let through a gate. The caption on it read, “The Sleepy Gatekeeper”.

I felt an overwhelming rush of recognition. The last time I had seen this mat, or an identical version of it, was in the dining room of a holiday cottage in Somerset around 25 years previously. The cottage was one we visited year after year throughout my childhood, and those summer holidays have acquired an almost mythical status in our family for their thatched-cottage-dwelling, donkey-riding, outdoor-swimming, village-pottering, eternally-sunny perfection.

Although they cannot really have been as unceasingly joyful as I remember them, they weren’t far off.

Of the set of table-mats, each featuring a different image and caption, “The Sleepy Gatekeeper” was the most coveted. My brothers and I would fight over it — largely for the pleasure of then being able to crow triumphantly, “I’ve got the Sleepy Gatekeeper!”.

I have no idea why this was considered to be the best one, but I suspect the original decision was completely arbitrary and made entirely so that we would have something to argue about.

Anthony then gave me five more parcels, each containing another of the mats in the set. He explained to me that after I had told him the story recounted above, he had sourced the original images on the internet using the phrase “sleepy gatekeeper”. He then had those images made into new table-mats for me.

We use these mats every day. It’s our kids who now cry, “I’ve got the Sleepy Gatekeeper!” Not only are they a key to a whole host of warm childhood memories but because Anthony remembered the story that I told him and used his ingenuity to find them for me, they also represent love.

The striking thing about this is that, in an objective sense, I don’t even like them. The pictures are completely naff. If I saw them in a shop I wouldn’t buy them in a million years. And that fact has not the slightest bearing on my pleasure in owning them. I suspect just about everyone has at least one possession that they love subjectively but dislike objectively — something inherited, or given to them by someone precious, or that symbolises a particular time in their life.

I started thinking about the meaning of possessions because of something my friend Juliet wrote on Facebook. Two rings, lost more than 10 years ago, had turned up under her kitchen cupboard (discovered, incidentally but rather pleasingly, by the Pest Assassin people I wrote about a few weeks ago in this column).

Juliet wrote: “I bought them both when I was living in Israel, one when I arrived — a reminder that I should celebrate being brave, taking risks and having adventures. The other when I left a couple of years later — perhaps a reminder of the exact same things.”

Intrigued by the way each of these rings was a gateway to a whole set of emotions and ideas, I had a chat with another friend, also called Juliet, a professional declutterer. “I hear those stories every single day,” she told me. “It’s never just about stuff. It’s memories and aspirations and anxieties, fears and fantasies and identities. It’s why I’ve given up reading novels at the moment, because other people’s lives are so interesting!”

In the first year that Anthony and I were married, we were visiting the wonderful Salts Mill in Saltaire, Bradford. Originally a textile mill, it’s now an art gallery and arts and crafts centre. As we strolled around, I admired a (not madly expensive but very pretty and unusual) necklace I saw there. Unbeknown to me, Anthony then snuck back and bought it, giving it to me for our first wedding anniversary.

Some years later, I wore my necklace to a museum, and when I got home I discovered to my horror that it was no longer round my neck. I phoned the museum and they searched for it. Understanding the importance of finding it, they even looked through the bins. When they had no luck, I went back myself and meticulously retraced my steps. It was all to no avail. I never saw my necklace again.

I was gutted, and I’ve never dared tell Anthony. I don’t think he’s noticed it’s gone, and writing about the fact in a national newspaper might be a flaw in my plan to make sure he never does. But then again, 13 years have passed since he gave the necklace to me, so maybe the time has come to confess.

I’m now off to hide behind the sofa till the JC comes out and he reads my column.


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