Life & Culture

Excavating my past in the box room

A decluttering session turns emotional when it unearths a treasure from my childhood


Manual Typewriter Circa 1970

It was the poet Tennyson who mused that, ‘In the spring, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love…’

We don’t know what his thoughts were about not-so-young men, but here at Calman Towers, I can tell you that in spring a husband’s fancy shows little sign of swerving towards romance but turns, instead, to thoughts of tidying.

The Husband and I have both inherited the hoarding gene, undiluted, it seems, by our grandparents’ need to flee at a moment’s notice.

Once, I mistakenly told him about “döstädning”, the Scandinavian idea of “death cleaning”, of decluttering your home with the view to making it easier for your offspring after you die. I think it’s a great idea in theory. I didn’t realise that my mentioning it would mean that I would then have to actually do it.

We have only one child, now 19, so after we’ve popped our clogs, he won’t even have the comfort of having to go through our accumulated stuff with the camaraderie of a sibling to laugh and weep at our folly in keeping things for so many years.

I could not have endured trawling through our parents’ odd hoards (Dad: so many decades of theatre and opera programme stashed beneath his bed, its legs actually lifted off the floor. Mum: The National Collection of Moth-Eaten Scarves plus all her old spectacles. Yes, including those she couldn’t possibly have seen anything with).

Personally, I favour embarking on any kind of tidying gently: dipping a toe in the water by, say, excavating the layers on my bedside table, those stacks of books and newspaper articles about insomnia I’m absolutely, definitely, going to read any day now.

But The Husband laughs in the face of such a paltry challenge and wants to skip base camp and head straight for the summit of doom – the box room.

I grew up in a two-bed flat, so even the idea of a box room sounded like a wild fantasy, akin to having a West Wing or castellations on the roof.

My younger self could scarcely imagine having a room you could devote entirely to your unsorted stuff instead of spreading it out in every room and on every surface.

Now that I have one, I do that too: it turned out not to be an either/or situation.

We zip up our Hazmat suits and commence operations. As I have bad knees and a bad back, this means that I sit enthroned next to a table while the Husband-Factotum brings a box or a bag for me to excavate.

The first box is full of my old academic stuff, including my dissertation from university — “Paradox and contradiction in Milton’s Paradise Lost” — plus earlier essays from my A-levels. There is one on man’s propensity to destroy his environment — in French! An economics essay on the law of diminishing returns.

Who knew I was ever this clever? What has happened to my brain in the intervening years? Now I need to watch Succession with the subtitles on or I can’t follow the plot.

We are making good progress, with the piles for charity, recycling and rubbish getting bigger while the “keep” corner is relatively modest, mainly because most of our stuff is devoid of any monetary value.

Despite this, it is clear that the Husband is convinced that there might be an 18th-century silver milk jug hidden somewhere in the boxes, or a Rembrandt etching. His secret (until now) vice is watching Antiques Roadshow.

I have no such illusions about 18th-century silver milk jugs and the like, but then he emerges from the box room with a very dusty, heavy brown case. Oh.

It’s my first typewriter, a proper metal one, a gift from my dad for my tenth birthday. I remember at the time being thrilled that he had acquired a grown-up one rather than the plastic Petite ones you could buy in the 1970s.

Now, just seeing the case, with a small address label of my childhood home, and my eyes fill with tears. Yes, of course I should get rid of it. It’s not a valuable antique or a museum-piece. And yet…

My dad is dead and more than any other object, this typewriter reflects his absolute faith that I’d get to where I was meant to be. I don’t know how or why, but he knew even when I was ten that one day I would end up being a writer.

It took me another 20 years — not long before his death it turned out — to understand that he was right. So even though I know it’s only an object, it’s so freighted with love and faith and parental care that I can’t bear to relinquish it.

Seeing my face, my husband gently wipes the case with a damp cloth with as much care as if he were cleaning up a sticky infant. And, without a word, takes it back into the box room for safekeeping.

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