** Before we start: ** this is the third part of a story about the big things: life, death and underwear. And about saying goodbye to Meg, a 92-year old woman who died two weeks ago. Next week will be the last instalment. If you missed the previous columns, it might help to click here and here. Thank you to everyone who has stayed the course.
During the coming days Meg’s house will have to be readied for sale and then, in a few months’ time, completely emptied and the keys handed to a new owner. But how do you start packing up a life when everything you catch sight of suddenly seems so imbued with meaning? As we stand there looking around, wondering which cupboard to open first, we imagine avoiding all of the looming decisions by simply keeping everything as it is.
The house is in Stratford-upon-Avon, just a short walk from Shakespeare’s birthplace, so perhaps we could turn it into lodgings for tourists who are after a full-on hey-nonny-nonny experience. David says that we could promote our inn as offering “bard and breakfast” but, of course, people would first have to decide if they wanted to B&B or not to B&B. I suggest that for breakfast I could serve my speciality egg dish of ham-let and toast and that we could even push to doing dinner: Julius Caesar salads and mac-beth burgers, as well as staples such as cod-piece and chips.
We start in the kitchen. A good measure of how old you are seems to be your increasing willingness to ignore the best-before dates on food. It’s as though the closer you personally get to perishing, the more determined you are to brush such irksome information away – to literally and metaphorically shove the issue to the back of the cupboard. It is agreed that packets of spices stamped “best by 2010” can go. I show David a tin of syrup marked 2008. “No, you can keep that,” he says. “That will be fine.”
Also cast out are several figurines with heads badly reattached after long-distant dusting incidents. But then there are things that you don’t want to tackle. I finally unpack the bag she took to hospital; take out her washbag, her nightdress. David has to look in his aunt’s handbag to find the credit cards that need cancelling but opening a woman’s handbag, even a dead woman’s, feels like an intrusion too far.
There are other tasks. The undertaker wants to know if we would like Meg to be dressed when cremated and we are confident that she would want to look her best for this moment. We find a bright-red jacket, a cream silk blouse that ties with the flourish of a pussy bow at the neck, and some black sequinned trousers. She’ll be disappointed that shoes are not allowed – she might have been 92 but there are some serious heels in the wardrobe. Ann, a neighbour, thankfully comes to select the underwear and congratulates us on our skills as stylists. It’s a look that works from cocktail party to casket.
As the weekend passes we find, peering out of a carrier bag, a teddy bear kept since childhood, as well as her first job contract at the BBC and so many photos. Here she is on a ski slope, turned to camera, perhaps in her twenties, a face full of anticipation. There are theatre programmes and guidebooks annotated on holidays years ago. There are so many baking trays and cut-glass tumblers. Slowly a few more things enter the bin bags but not much. These things need custodians, or at least to be lingered over a final time.
Faced with all these cupboards, all these things with meanings and histories that are often opaque to us, you soon reflect on your own possessions. How many of the things that you have kept and cherished will end up in a rubbish sack one day? Should you start the edit yourself now to save them time?
The answer is no. While it can be slow and melancholic, in this sifting and sorting you get to take stock of a life up close. See the person in rich detail. It’s another step in the long goodbye. Although you could perhaps have a bash at the spice rack before you go.