Sunday, 11 November 2018

Family Stories ~ Small Histories

Small Histories. 

It is summer in South Africa, 1990. I'm sitting in a garage, holding an old tin box. It is so worn by age that the colour has no description in the English language. I rub my hand across the scratched and worn away surface, feeling old friends inside. I know their faces without having to see them. If I open the box... when I open the box... I will know them and they will know me, but for now it is enough to sit here and listen to them whispering within their tin tomb.

The sun is bright outside the garage. I can hear cars in the distance and birds nearby. My grandfather would sit here for hours, squatting on his haunches with ease, even in his seventies. Sit and watch the world... smoke his pipe. Now he is gone and I am here in old clothes to help family remove grandpa's collections.

Grandpa was a pack rat supreme. There are at least twenty jam jars of screws and nails so rusted no-one could ever use them again. There are five books of wallpaper samples he used to decorate two generations of doll's houses and eight tins of World War two tank paint used mostly to repaint the concrete garden gnome that now sits on the front steps. There are Rhodesian TV magazines dating back to the sixties. Their covers show girls wearing mini skirts and enormous hair. Their adverts are for products and companies long gone and their TV listings are heavily nostalgic - Star Trek and Twilight Zone, Fred Flintstone and Skippy the Bush Kangaroo.

My dad puts them alongside the rest of the junk to be recycled or dumped. So much of my grandfather's collecting was junk and yet he could create wonder from it. Like the penny farthing cycle he built from scraps of wire and metal or the castle forts and doll's houses he meticulously glued together from old empty matchboxes. I actually hated the doll's house. I'd wanted a castle, but even at eight I'd been awed at the craftsmanship that was needed to create a luxury double-story, with cardboard roof tiles and real windows of thin plastic sheeting, out of matchboxes.

Sitting amongst the dusty dregs of a lifetime's collecting I sit with "the box" and remember. I can't lift the lid. As long as the box is closed the memories inside are dormant - frozen. Inside this box time stands still. As long as the lid is shut my grandpa is alive and we are sitting in his room in Rhodesia as he tells me all the small histories. Once I lift the lid it will be over. The photos are not mine - they are going to other family members as keepsakes. So I sit and hold the memories a little longer. I have asked permission to scan as many as I want, but it won't be the same. I have no-one I can tell their stories to, as my grandfather told me, and scanned pictures on a screen aren't the same as brittle dry paper held in the hand.

Perhaps my heart is as sad to let them go as it is to let him go... but I have one consolation. I have the tales and the memories - the small histories. No-one can take those from me. I smile and open the box...

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