Clutter … or Treasure?

Did you get a home-made card this Mother’s Day? And will it sit proudly on the mantlepiece for a few days before getting tossed in the recycling? … or maybe be displayed on the fridge door for a couple of weeks or months? … or does it join a whole collection of artwork and wee notes and cards carefully preserved for posterity? If I tell you that the above card was made for me around 30 years ago and that Daniel will be 40 next year, I think you can guess which category I fall into!

As it turns out, from the point of view of the family historian (as I now have the temerity to call myself), these tiny trifles are like golddust. For example, here’s a little letter from Theresa, a cousin of mine in Inverness, sent to her Aunt Beatrice (my grandmother) in 1931.

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And a drawing of “The wee Pickles” (John, Mary and Donald) from the back of one of my dad’s letters to his mother, as described in my previous post, again in 1931.

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I am so glad that these little handmade documents have survived the years; there is something almost unbearably touching about handling these relics of the past, and feeling that the love that went into their making, giving and receiving still survives to this day, even when the people are long gone.

Don’t get me wrong, I do have bouts of clutter clearing. Bouts? It’s continuous!  I’m currently going through boxes and boxes of my mum’s remaining letters, papers and photographs, looking for the small gems among all the clutter. On the whole, my mum kept EVERYTHING – it all meant something to her and more often than not, some card or letter will be preserved in its envelope marked, for example, “from Tia in London, keep safely” or “To Dad from Eleanor for Father’s Day ’79. Very precious”. You see what I mean? It makes it almost impossible to toss anything away!

Actually, my solution for the moment is to parcel up all these various mementos and return them to the original senders – that way, my sisters, children, nieces and nephews can make the decision as to what should happen to them . I’m sure they’ll be delighted with that. And by the way, I have no idea who Barry Kiernan is.

You know, it’s very random what survives and what doesn’t, so in a way I’m glad to have this surfeit of stuff to sort through, as it’s better than not having anything at all from a particular era. Which was the case when I was telling you about George and Beatrice and how they met sometime before 1920. George, of course carried on after Beatrice died in 1932, eventually married again and had more (many more!) children. But that’s a story for another day. For the moment, let me tell you a memory that has been passed on to me, which will perhaps explain why I’ve not been able to find any artifacts from that decade when they met in Ceylon, or perhaps even on the boat home.

These are the words of Pat, widow of George’s son, Sandy;

“When George knew he was dying, around 1961/2 he bade Sandy fetch a tea chest and emptied the shop safe – it was huge – into it. He stood over Sandy while chest and contents were burned in the back yard.”


It’s generally agreed that George’s last word on his deathbed – and remember this is 30 years after she had died – was “Beatrice”.

It’s a bit of a mystery to me as to just how the photos I have of Beatrice and the family, and the childrens’ letters, somehow survived this bonfire. My sister Mary thinks that perhaps some female relation – possibly one of George’s sisters – might have kept them when Beatrice died and then passed them on to our Dad at some point. Whatever the truth is, we can only be grateful to her for this act of preservation.

So, I kind of hope that despite the technology we have at our disposal nowadays when it seems we can document and share our lives almost as they happen, people will still find delight in discovering the odd home made card or gift or souvenir that has been squirreled away in a shoebox, only to be unearthed years later, after the items – and possibly the people associated with them – have been long forgotten. You never know – these simple keepsakes, not necessarily having any monetory value, might become cherished family heirlooms, like this service button owned by my cousin Pauline which is the only memento she still has of her father (my Uncle Donald).