Thoughtful Little Things, a fortnightly series on appreciating the simple, small things in life.
My father died when I was twenty-three. We buried him quickly, following Muslim tradition, and at some point after the relatives and friends had gone, my mother and my eldest big brother worked to sort through his things. I don’t know where I was; I suppose I had returned to work in London (he had passed away on my first day at work). I remember asking my brother what it was like, to have gone through all our father’s belongings. “Everything just smelt of him,” he said.
Later my mother asked if I wanted to take anything of his back to London with me. I took a jumper and a bottle of his aftershave. In the very raw beginning, I sometimes wore his jumper when I was alone in my then-flat. I wore it for comfort and warmth and because it smelt of him. The jumper was red, the colour of plump cherry tomatoes dotted in summer salads, bright like his cheeks after mowing the lawn. It was warm, cosy, a v-neck, as I recall. I also kept his aftershave. I don’t remember the name now, but it was in a deep blue glass bottle with a gold lid. When he was in hospital, I learnt to shave his face for him, gently trying not to let the razor scrape against his papery skin, and afterwards I would spritz this in the air to dispel the stale dullness of the ward.
I kept both of these things, his jumper and his aftershave, from the time of his death to the time that I married; I kept them for about five years. At some point I stopped wearing the jumper and instead folded it neatly and put it away at the back of my wardrobe, the bottle of aftershave next to it. But when I was about to be married, and I forced myself to sort through all my own belongings and simplify my life, I decided I didn’t need to keep these things to remember him by. I can only assume the jumper went to charity, the aftershave - a bottle opened for far too long - in the bin. My point is that I don’t remember the act of parting because I didn’t need these insignificant things to remember him by.
My mother and father came to England from Pakistan. He was here before her, to establish his medical career, and when she arrived they set up a small home in the upstairs rooms of a large period house. While they lived upstairs, my father, a medic, saw patients and worked downstairs in reception rooms converted into a doctor’s surgery.
Since their first home was so small, my parents didn’t come to England with very much by way of belongings, out of practicality and necessity. For what, exactly, do you pack for a new life, when you have a luggage allowance to consider? So it is not as if they filled their limited suitcase space with family heirlooms or art or books. They started from scratch. No room for sentimentality.
By the time I was born, my parents had moved to a more modern suburb, where the houses looked the same but different, and over time they filled our family home with pieces that, I suppose, reminded them of Pakistan, pieces they brought back with them from the long, extended family trips we made there together. Handmade rugs, intricate wood carvings, ceramics hand-painted with calligraphy, one or two photographs of their parents, long since gone. But nothing of their childhoods, nothing of their own family homes.
The inheritance of things
I see people, on social media and in real life, with homes filled with history. Not just secondhand pieces, but treasures that have been passed along, telling stories through their family. A wooden trunk which once held a grandmother’s wedding trousseau and now holds a child’s toys. A painted armoire in a hallway, stuffed with football boots and hockey sticks, but which originally came from an ancestor’s home. A dear friend of mine has countless tea sets, inherited from her mother and her mother’s mother; her (also inherited) dining table is surrounded by old pass-on-down antique chairs. There is a charm to her kitchen that comes with all of this.
But in our family, a family of migration and journeys, there are no pieces of family furniture that have been passed along, no heirlooms that have stood the test of time. Even if there had been, it is unlikely that they would have travelled this far. Not across countries, continents and oceans, not all the way to England. Because this is what happens when your roots are rambling and overgrown from one country to the other in a tangled, wild nest.
This kind of history can be confusing. When I first set up my very first home, a tiny studio flat, my mother gave me cushion covers, embroidered with rich red and rust silks and inlaid with tiny glass pieces in the shape of diamonds. I could have sworn she told me they belonged to her mother, my grandmother, and so I took such care over them - only to discover, years later, that they didn’t belong to my grandmother at all, that my mother simply couldn’t remember where she got them from at all. After that, they didn’t mean so much at all and I felt free to change those covers, long since gone now, according to my whims.
But do I miss this? Do I miss this inheritance of things? A small part of me would love to know that the stories that seep all old things were, in a way, my stories - not just something that belonged to someone else once upon a time that I happened to chance upon in a market or a vintage store. It would, for instance, be charming if my boys’ vintage writing desks were not just desks I ordered online, but desks that belonged to someone further along in the family tree.
My friend with the inherited tea sets has more than just tea sets. She has a whole house of curious heirlooms, but she finds it too much. There is no room for her aesthetic, no room for her to bring the meaning she wants for her own home and her own family. So I see her struggle and the burden of all this inheritance - things she cannot give away for fear of upsetting older relatives - hanging on the walls and hidden in cupboards.
I am lucky I don’t have this sort of burden, of things being too much, of not feeling like I don’t have my own space, to bear. I am grateful for the clean slate. I have the chance to make my home my own way without obligation to a certain person or a past I had no part in. I feel like we can live lightly.
As for my children: they once found my old toys in my mother’s loft and they picked out the ones they liked most. A rabbit, which I dearly loved, and a tiny bear. They brought them home with them. And it pleases me that they have something small of mine, something of when I was a little girl.
Will we keep them forever? Most likely not. But for now, they like to take care of these things for me. “You can sleep with your rabbit tonight, Mama” they sometimes declare, thrusting it into my hands at bedtime as I leave them. More than once, I have gone to bed to find my little childhood bear tucked underneath my pillow. Looking after my soft toys is, I think, my boys’ way of looking after me. There is a kindness and a thoughtfulness that I love about that, about them doing this for me.
My boys may have nothing of their grandfather’s to hold. But they have me, and I have memories that I can put down in words, and I trust that those stories, on their own, may be enough.
A minimalist’s guide: five ways to let go of sentimental things and inherited keepsakes
1) Leave it a while It’s hard to let go of anything that reminds you of someone you love. So take your time. You don’t have to do it all straight away. Wait until that day when the clouds don’t feel so dark and you can see and think with clarity again. Put them out of sight, but not so much that you forget about them entirely. Because you’ll have to deal with it someday and you’ll need reminding of that.
2) Take a philosophical approach Things are just things. People aren’t made of stuff. We are all more than that. When you part with something sentimental or inherited, know that though the item may be gone, the memories remain
3) Once you’ve made the decision to part with it Then part with it - and quickly. Don’t dwell on it. When it’s gone, it’s gone and there is a lightness that comes with that.
4) Don’t take it to a landfill, if you can avoid it Donate to charity instead. Someone else will want and need the thing that you don’t. That’s purposeful.
5) If you inherit something from an ancestor you never even knew and don’t even like the item (or even if it’s someone that was close to you but you still don’t like the piece) or it doesn’t fall in line with your values Then stop the process in its tracks before guilt gets its grip on you and before it starts to happen again and again. You can say you simply have no room. Or consider if you can have an honest but gentle conversation with the relative doing the off-loading. This New York Times piece includes this mantra: ““My taste is different. Why don’t we pick out someone in the family who would love to have this?” which is clear and concise but also kind enough to suggest giving it to someone who will appreciate it. Feelings may be offended, but it won’t last forever whereas the clutter will, once you open the door an inch.