Whenever I go and stay with my parents, I always find Betsy on my bed. Betsy is a toy rabbit I was given on the day I was born – though by whom I have forgotten – and who, thirty years on, remains just about in one piece. Her little pink dress is long gone, and her nose is half coming off, having been chewed by my grandmother’s spaniel puppy back in 1995, but other than that, she’s just a little threadbare in places.
My mother is not especially given to sentimentality; it’s rare she says “I love you” or “I’m proud of you” unprompted. I don’t doubt she feels those things (mostly, anyway), we just differ in our ways of showing affection. When I visited a few months ago, however, she managed to floor me with a throwaway remark about my childhood cuddly toy.
I was standing in the hallway, about to get the train back to Brighton, when Mum called down the stairs: “Are you taking Betsy with you?”
“No, it’s OK, she stays here,” I said, in all likelihood not looking up from my phone.
“Good. If she stays here, I know you’ll always come back,” trilled my mother, unaware of the dagger she was about to blithely lob down the stairs and into my heart.
“You wouldn’t just leave her here forever,” said Mum, still out of sight, probably tidying something that didn’t need tidying. “If she’s here on your bed, I know you’re always coming back.”
Somehow I think this was less about the rabbit, and more a rare flash of insight into how my mother feels about parenting. Obviously I’m not a parent myself so I can only speculate, but I wonder if as your children grow up you can’t help but see them at every age they’ve ever been, all at once. Maybe when I go ‘home’, my mother doesn’t just see 30-year-old me, she sees the chubby red-haired baby, the round-faced blonde schoolgirl, and the angry teenager too. Maybe the toddler clutching the soft toy rabbit is never very far away.
When my grandmother died, I was lucky enough to be left a little money in her will. And though I was of course grateful to have it, it was some of her things I really started to want in the months after her death. Most of what had been kept was at my aunt’s house, so when the right time came, I asked for some of the Blue Denmark china. Most of the meals of my childhood were eaten off that crockery, and every time I look at the mid-blue flowers and leaves curved elegantly on a white background, I remember the bowls of cereal or porridge eaten at my grandmother’s table in the ever-hot glow of the Aga. Summer lunches of ham and cold chicken and new potatoes and home-grown tomatoes at the Big Table by the French doors. The fat teapot, brought out on afternoons when the house was crammed with family. The cake tin that was never empty. Toast on weekend evenings when a roast lunch had rendered any sort of supper almost unnecessary.
I also ended up with some cutlery – silver-plated, heavy – and a couple of bone-handled knives, and I use these and the china every single day, like I did when I was small and spent most of my time at Gran’s. They’re pieces of her, and reminders of a time when feeling safe and loved was easy.
And this is why I’ll never be a minimalist. I’m starting to notice how protective I am of things that are mine – my studio flat, for all its quirks (the mezzanine bed built far too close to the ceiling, for one thing), is without a doubt one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. I’ve stuffed it with books, clothes, an extensive make-up and skincare collection, a part-time spaniel and some treasured mugs – all things that give me genuine joy – and it doesn’t matter what happens to me outside these walls, knowing I can come back to a place that feels like a real home is one of the most soothing things in the world. I have learnt how to be happy alone here, and that’s partly because seeing things you have earned or acquired through other people’s kindness is its own sort of reassurance. You’re never lonely for long when surrounded by stacks of books. Cards and notes from friends stuck to your mirror remind you you are loved. Coffee in your favourite mug – the expensive one from Emma Bridgewater with the dogs on it – reminds you that you earned the money that bought that cup and you are in charge of your life.
My grandfather collected old farming tools – I come from a long line of obsessive weirdos, it would seem – and when he died, he left my gran with a barnful of them. The rest of the family asked Gran to consider selling the house and moving somewhere smaller, but she resisted for years, saying “I like it here, I have all his things around me”, and my understanding of that has only strengthened over time. It’s proof of life, isn’t it? The person may be dead but the things they touched are still here. The things they chose to have around them remain. And those things become tangible reminders that we were loved once.
Most of us reach a point where being given actual stuff for our birthdays and Christmas starts to feel a bit like overkill (unless of course it’s food and drink). You find yourself saying things like, “look, I really don’t need anything, why not save your money for now and we’ll go out for a nice dinner or something?” But a well-chosen gift is an act of love. Being given a book with the words, “I think you’ll enjoy this” bathes you briefly in the warm light of being properly seen, properly known.
Maybe I err on the side of overly sentimental. I’m a great keeper of handwritten things; I save scrawled notes from those I adore for far longer than might seem entirely sane. But for one thing, it pays off: I recently found the last birthday card my grandmother ever wrote me, her handwriting heartbreakingly shaky and hard to read. And for another: well, it’s my clutter, I’m not asking you to store it.
People who don’t get attached to things at all make me wonder what else doesn’t touch them, what else doesn’t leave its mark. What else, perhaps, they don’t let in. You couldn’t pay me to go back to my teenage years, when every emotion was at its most intense and everything was either brilliant or devastating – but life is only as open as we are. You have to feel things. To really live is to be porous, I think.
The plate with the pattern that whisks you back to when you were small, legs swinging and feet barely touching the floor as you sat at the table. The bone-handled knife, decades old, good only for spreading butter that’s been out the fridge for a while. The serving spoon with the ornate handle that you never use but that conjures memories of Sunday roasts and apple crumble every time you see it in the drawer. Tiny, intricate time machines, every single one.