Over four years have passed since my mother died. The financial side of her estate has finally been settled, following prolonged correspondence with accountants and lawyers. A personal aspect, namely the letters in two of the box files I discovered in the spare bedroom when clearing her house, remains unresolved. I hope this is the last weekend of the Covid-19 lockdown, which would seem an ideal opportunity to deal with these boxes before my life gets busy again. But I still can’t decide what to do with them.
One box contains a series of letters written to my mother during my childhood in the 1950s and 60s, regarding a situation of which I was only dimly aware. I don’t know whether she intended me to find them after her death, but as she was a very “private person” I suspect not. I did read them, while feeling somewhat guilty about doing so. I think it likely that she intended to destroy them one day, but having become weak and unwell in the last months of her life, either lacked the energy to do so or forgot they were there. I haven’t shown the letters to my husband, but he knows something about their content, and suggests that it could make a good basis for my next novel. This may be true, but writing such a book would seem disloyal however heavily I disguised the plot. I have several options. I could destroy all the letters now. I could go through them again and copy selected extracts into a file on my computer for future reference, then destroy the rest. I could leave them in the box, with a note asking whoever finds them after my death to destroy them unread.
The other box contains the letters I sent home to my mother and grandparents in Yorkshire when I was a medical student in Oxford in the late 1960s. I have only reread some of these, having found the style embarrassingly naive, but some contain descriptions of the course which might perhaps be of interest to a medical historian. I was shocked to find that I remember nothing about most of the people and events described. What a contrast to my husband Brian Barraclough and my friend Jean Hendy-Harris, who can both recall their past lives in great detail and have published memoirs about them. I wonder which of us is the more unusual.
Update December 15 2020: With the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death approaching, it was time to make decision about her letters. I destroyed them all yesterday, not without regret, but felt it was the right thing to do.
Jennifer Barraclough is a retired doctor, originally from England but now living in New Zealand, who writes medical and fiction books. Her latest one You Yet Shall Die, a novel about family secrets and a long-ago crime set in southern England, is available from Amazon and other online retailers, or can be ordered from bookshops and libraries.
This short post is really about people rather than cats, but I couldn’t resist including a photo to show the friendship between Daisy (the tortoiseshell one) and Leo (the tabby).
I am in the final stages of editing my short memoir about the traumas of 2015 – 6: my husband’s collapse and heart operation, my mother’s death following abdominal surgery and a stroke, and my own stress-related illness. The positive theme that shines through amid these painful topics is the huge value of support from family, friends and neighbours during times of sickness and loss. I will always be grateful to the local people who took time to listen when I described my troubles, brought meals to the house when I was too unwell to shop or cook, and gave lifts to the hospital when I was too unwell to drive. I could not have coped without them.
Many of our closest friends and relatives live in the UK so were not able to give practical help, but their emails and phone calls were a great support. Most of them had also known my mother and several months after she had died, when Brian and I were well enough to travel, a return visit provided the opportunity to revive some family connections and make some new ones too.
Research consistently shows the importance of “good social support” in buffering the adverse effects of stressful life events, but not everyone has a network of people to call on in times of need. Loneliness is a significant predictor of poor health and reduced life expectancy, and it is endemic among many sections of modern society especially for older people who live alone. Companion animals can help; I remember when Brian was in hospital, and I was alone in the house, I appreciated more than ever the comforting presence of my three cats.
I am very fortunate to have so many good relatives and friends. Today, New Year’s Eve 2016 – the first anniversary of my mother’s death – I send my thanks to you all, with best wishes for 2017.
Dealing with the aftermath of a death in the family is a long and arduous process. Many kind people are helping me to sort through the contents of my late mother’s house, yet there are many aspects of the task which I must deal with myself rather than delegate. It feels overwhelming at times, and brings up an uncomfortable mix of emotions.
Having been brought up in frugal wartime Britain, my mother seldom threw anything away. When she came to live in New Zealand she brought a container load of possessions. Some of the household items – furniture, bedlinen, crockery and cutlery, ornaments – belonged to my grandparents. She also brought large supplies of clothing, numerous boxes of papers mostly relating to her former academic career, and her precious library of books. It feels heartless to be discarding things which carry so many memories both of her life and mine. But I know it is best that most of them should be given to charity, for I already have all the material goods I want or need.
Some of course ought to be kept, but which ones? It can be difficult to decide. My impatience to finish the job, and be free to get on with more enjoyable projects of my own, is combined with the fear of carelessly disposing too soon of items that are important or valuable or “might come in”.
It is interesting to look through the old family photos, many also dating back to my grandparents’ time, but frustrating to find that most of them are unlabelled. When and where were they taken, and who are the people in them? Some are familiar, but others are obscure. It is strange to see a young woman and her child in a picture and not to know whether they were my mother and me. The letters and personal papers are also of interest, revealing certain aspects of my mother’s life which she never discussed. But I feel a certain sense of guilt about intruding on her privacy. Did she intend that I should read this material after she died, or was she just too tired and unwell to dispose of it before it was too late?
After I have finished closing my mother’s estate I am resolved to put my own affairs in better order – to declutter, organise and simplify. I do not want my own executors to be faced with huge piles of stuff to sort out. But this is easier said than done, and I am already making room in our already fully furnished house for some of my mother’s things, and put all her photos – still unsorted and unlabelled – out of sight in a drawer.
My mother’s funeral took place yesterday.
In the past I have often – though not always – experienced funerals as rather distressing and depressing ordeals, which I was reluctant to attend. My mother had never discussed her wishes regarding her own funeral, but after she died I felt somewhat to my surprise that holding one in the Anglican tradition would be the right thing to do. This was confirmed when while going through her papers I found a list, written some years ago, of the hymns and readings she would want. Although she was not a church-goer, her choices included John’s Gospel Chapter 14 verses 1-6 and 27, Psalm 121, and God be in my Head, perhaps reflecting her religious upbringing.
I was also surprised to find that planning the ceremony was a positive experience. The minister provided an excellent service, as did the funeral director and the organist who were both already personal friends. I was nervous beforehand but all went well, and I managed to remain composed while reading out some of the tributes that had been emailed from my mother’s relatives and friends who live back in the UK. Obviously none of them were able to travel to New Zealand for the event, but many sent cards and flowers, and a good number of our local friends were present to provide their support.
I now understand that funerals can provide a valuable sense of “closure” to the bereaved. After yesterday was over I felt more relaxed, and more ready to move forward to the next stage of life, which will be very different without my mother living next door.
Over the past several weeks we have been watching the slow transformation of the caterpillar on our swan plant as it became a chrysalis and then, today, opened to release this beautiful Monarch Butterfly.
Today we also attended the funeral of a much-loved family member, and I remembered that in many traditions the butterfly represents the freedom of the departing spirit. In Ancient Greek the same word, psyche, means both butterfly and soul.