A Box of Memories

Zoë Sharp

Where do you keep your memories? How do you anchor them to the framework of your life?

Those questions have been very much on my mind this last week. I’ve been away in Somerset, helping an old friend pack up his house in preparation to moving into a single-storey home. He’s now in his late seventies, no longer entirely steady on his feet, and with a tremor in his hands that makes labelling boxes a tiresome task, never mind actually putting stuff into them.

Andrew is a retired pilot. He’s flown just about everything—either fixed or rotary wing—in all conditions, all over the world. The stories he tells of hairy landings in Africa at night, or airborne rescues in South America, would fill several books. I’ve been trying to persuade him to set some of it down for years.

When I needed authentic information about crashing a helicopter for the new Charlie Fox book, DIE EASY, who else would I turn to but Andrew? After all, he’s actually crashed them and lived to tell the tale. So, as a thank you I made him into the laidback ex-military pilot in the book.

A secondary reason for my visit was to coincide with the Air Day at the Royal Naval Air Station at Yeovilton. This year’s event had some fabulous flying displays, from the Red Arrows to a massive Russian Antonov heavy transport plane, aerobatics aircraft, and classics like the Swordfish, the Meteor, and the Spitfire. There were also numerous helicopters flying manoeuvres that I really didn’t think it was possible—never mind advisable—to perform in rotary-wing machines. And being able to get up close and personal to a wide variety of different aircraft is invaluable research, of course.

All in all, a very memorable day.

But five years down the line—or ten years—how will I remember it? I don’t mean my impressions, which were of stunning skill and a boundless enthusiasm, of power and speed and a kind of lethal excitement.

I mean where will I place it against events of my life that came before and after? Unless something dramatic happens in a certain year—and unfortunately dramatic often also equals traumatic—the order of things very quickly begins to blur.

I don’t know if everyone does this, but I have always had a mental image of the days of the week. They are laid out like a letter ‘D’, with the weekend stacked at the left-hand side and the rest bowing out at the right. Whenever I have appointments or it’s my blog day, or whatever, this is the mental image I pin those facts to.

With years, it’s different. I have never pictured a year like the calendars you get in the front of a diary, with each month laid out in a box of days and dates. To me, each year snakes backwards in single file, a day at a time, tilting as it goes like one of those optical illusion paintings, so that it’s always downhill towards winter. I’ve just booked my flights for this year’s Bouchercon mystery convention in Cleveland OH in October. In my mind, October is over the crest of the light summer months and heading downhill into the darker end of the year.

But when they asked me the security questions of where I flew to in the States last March, I struggled to remember my exact itinerary. And the only reason I would have a note of it is because I usually create a document for each trip with a list of addresses and confirmation numbers, and probably I have yet to delete that from my computer.

Am I missing out on something?

After all, I have no children who might be interested in what I did with my life, so I do not feel the need to preserve a little personal history for future generations. And having been a photographer for years I now take very few pictures that are not work-related, although since I got my new cellphone with a decent camera on it, I confess to being a little more snap-happy.

And yet I am fascinated by other people’s history. Leafing through Andrew’s albums of family photos going back before the First World War, I am enthralled by the clothing, the stern faces, the little glimpses into character that people unknowingly show when faced with a camera.

One of the boxes I labelled for him was simply called ‘Dates and Memories’. Into it went all kinds of tickets, letters and cards. The anchor points of his life.

I am also faced with the prospect of moving house at some point, and it would have been my instinct to use it as an excuse to de-clutter. When the time comes I may well still do just that. But this experience has certainly made me pause and reflect. Do I really want to get rid of all those little aide-mémoire items. The ones that give structure to the good times, and put the bad times into perspective?

So, ‘Rati, my question is, how do you remember your memories? And where do you keep them? And if you only had space left in your box of memories for one more item, what would it be?

This week’s Word of the Week is anchorite, or anchoret, which means a man or woman who has withdrawn from the world especially for religious reasons; a recluse, from which we get anchorage, a recluse’s cell or a place to withdraw from the world.


21 thoughts on “A Box of Memories

  1. David Corbett

    Wonderful post, Zoe.

    My memories are hopelessly scattered about — my office, my second office, the living room, the basement. I put away much of the stuff from my marriage with the understanding I needed to "move on" (ghastly phrase), but I know where to go to find those. But the rest is poorly handled and thus unable to help me. As a writer, that seems shabby, and I should no doubt change that up. Your blog is an inspiration there. But the treadmill of time, especially in the ever-tricky now, makes any such effort unlikely in the near term. I'll most likely wait until, like you, I decide to uproot the homestead and pitch the unnecessary — and reawaken my memory.

    I love the shape of time in your head — it almost seems a kind as synaesthesia — and your rendering of Andrew was touching. I'm sure he cherished your help — and your company.

  2. Richard Maguire

    A really thoughtful post, Zoe.

    Since childhood, each day of the week is a different color in my mind. Same goes for the seasons.

    Before moving here 5 years ago, I got rid of most physical reminders, or souvenirs, of the past. My head is now the main depository. Trouble is, in the course of any given day memories from all times revisit, uninvited. A conversation that became an argument. A misunderstanding that caused a girlfriend to walk out. A journey begun in hope that didn't end well. So then I brood about the past. Or "ruminate", as the shrinks call it, upon my failures. And there lies the road to depression.

  3. Alaina

    When I was young, every year, on my birthday, my parents would tell me all about myself when I was a little girl. Now, I set aside my birthday to think back on my life: trying to remember everything I possibly can about the past year, good and bad, and as far back as I can. I even try to order them, though older stuff is jumbled up and fuzzy.

    It may not work for everyone, but the mental review helps me.

  4. Sarah W

    The flippant (yet sadly truthful) answer is that my memories are kept in a sieve and a lock box. But they do worm their ways into my stories . . .

    My kids each have a box, high on a closet shelf, full of their firsts, including desk calendars with (almost) daily comments through the first year of their lives, a shoe or two, their first movie stubs, and a green squeaky sheep I wouldn't part with for a four book deal and Stephen King's royalty checks.

    My Dad and I are trying to coordinate an entire week together to record his memories—he has fantastic stories and I want them all. Mom is next.

    (I wish I had a sense of time . . . mine is like a flock of birds–but I've booked for Bouchercon, too, and written it on three calendars, though I'm not sure how I'm getting there)

  5. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Kristi
    I hadn’t even started to think about what might happen to all my odd disconnected notes for books after I pop my clogs—no doubt some poor house clearance firm will bin the lot.
    I’ve never really kept a journal, strangely enough, although I do have a lot of scribbled quotes, bits of opening lines or possible titles. Even sketches.

  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi David
    Thank you. I’m sorry I haven’t been around much to join in with comments on all the great posts here over recent days.
    Moving house is both the best and the worst time to sort through all that stuff. Good because it makes you finally get round to doing it, but bad because you’re under the pressure of a deadline, and that can lead to errors of judgement about what to keep and what to finally throw away. I’m trying to do it slowly, box by box, but that resolution rarely lasts. And I agree, it could be an immensely painful process.
    Funny you should mention synaesthesia. I knew someone who had it, associating words very strongly with colours. And the supernatural thriller I’ve been writing has a character with synaesthesia—I’ve no idea why, and didn’t plan it beforehand, but as soon as I started writing her, I realised that was simply how her thought patterns worked.

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Thank you, Richard
    I don’t see days of the week in different colours, just in wavy patterns. But I know all about those miserable thoughts that have you circling the drain in no time. There are no easy answers, but sometimes it can be harder to look forwards in hope than back in anger. There are some peoples who believe we are all walking backwards into the future, able to see the present as it comes into view alongside us, and looking back over the distance of the past, but the future is hidden.
    Be gentle with yourself 🙂

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alaina
    What a lovely idea to have an annual review on your birthday. I tend to do that at the start of the New Year instead—look back at what was achieved in the last twelve months and what I hope to get done in the next twelve. And yes, the further back things go, the more fuzzy it becomes, although I have some incredibly distinct memories from early childhood—even as far back as being wheeled along my grandmother’s street in my pram.

  9. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Sarah
    A sieve and a lock-box—I like that image. And so true! Lovely that you have the opportunity to spend that time with your parents, gathering their stories. I would have loved to have done that with my Great Aunt before she died. Not having done so is one of my biggest regrets.
    Looking forward to seeing you again at Bouchercon—no doubt on the way into the bar, as always 🙂

  10. Karen, NZ

    Hi Zoë,

    A timely post, as over here we are gradually moving towards spring, and just yesterday I was rueing the fact that I attach memories to objects and things – many remind me of people from my past. I have a box of journals, though have tried to make the effort to record online, instead of notebooks. I won't have kids who may be interested either, though nieces and nephews might…. it's been suggested that taking pictures of treasured items could be a way of being able to let go, and I've been scanning documents – though looking at those is still not the same as the physical sensation of the real thing, it's just not the same as with pen and paper either…. and as for how to preserve photos…. it's a paradox – I would like the feeling and experience of an uncluttered space, though I cannot bear to let things go – I keep visualising THAT in my head, and it isn't successful yet – I hope I can get there before circumstances force the issue 🙂

  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Great post, Zoe!

    God, I stuff so much STUFF into boxes. They clutter the house, they sit stacked in storage units. I love the nostalgia of life – that of mine and the others I meet. But my memory is similar to yours. I have no concept of time. If something happened yesterday it happened a year ago, or five years, or ten years. People will ask me, "How long have you lived in your apartment?" and I'll be like, "Uhhh…."
    My wife is the same. People ask us all the time how long we've been married, or WHEN were we married. Like the date and year. To us it doesn't really matter. We got married. We've been married. We have no idea how long it's been.
    Then there are those embarrassing medical questions I get from doctors. "When did you have your last tetnus shot?" "Well, I'm pretty sure it was either last year or ten years ago. I remember stepping on a nail…I might have been five, though."
    Isn't time just a figment of our imagination anyway?

  12. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    By the way, I would SO love to go to a military air show with you, Zoe. To have you as my personal tour guide! That would be great!

  13. Reine

    Hi Zoë,

    This is beautiful. I love how you talk about your friend, Andrew. Your books are so well-informed. I love how hard you work at that, how true you are to reality in your fiction.

    Living at the Naval Weapons Center, China Lake for 20+ years, I met a number of pilots, UK as well as US and found they were all fantastic recorders of their lives. Each had tons of physical mementos and awards… things from all over the world. Memories surrounded them, while they did not live in the past.*

    I could never do that, the way they did, but their drive to understand and motivate through their own memories, moved me to find ways to look at my own life. I have, like you, a visual concept of time. I see mine in dominoes, sets of them, and their dots – singly, laid out, in boxes… cascading along planes, one to the other… the time movement downward.

    *[Yes, I did know Brett Battles back then. I was his substitute teacher on a few occasions, when I was considering teaching as a career.]

  14. PD Martin

    I'd like to say I keep memories in my head – but I'm such a forgetful person, that would be too bold a statement.

    We have a small home, so we're often trying to cull things. But I am planning to get Grace a box (like Sarah's children) of firsts. And I like Alaina's idea too – think I might start doing that with Grace even though she's only 5!

    One place that holds lots of memories for me is my family's house down at the beach. My grandparents bought it in 1972 as both a holiday house and their retirement home. It was a holiday house for many years, then they lived there for 15+ years. Now, we spend most school holidays down there and some weekends and there are memories everywhere. From the tacky 70s wallpaper and chandeliers, to the photos of our family when I was in my teens. The bedroom my sister and I shared is now where Grace sleeps and I like telling her that I used to lie in that same spot (thankfully different bed!) and look at the Holly Hobby wallpaper. Just like she does now 🙂

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex
    I sympathise entirely. I’m faced with the same task with added complications, so I’m not looking forward to it. Go slow and don’t be rushed into anything. If you’re unsure about something, keep it. There will be another chance to throw it away, but once it’s gone, it’s gone.

  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Karen
    Of course, in the southern hemisphere you’re in the opposite season to us northerners!
    I have a box of old family photos going back to the mid-1800s. I was thinking that when I move I’ll get a bookcase with those glass doors that you can also use to display pictures — two birds with one stone, and less dust on the books, too!

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Thanks, Stephen
    Time is incredibly elastic, stretching and compressing according to mood and circumstance. I wonder if I should keep a kind of CV, with the important dates and events noted on it, which would come in useful for those tetanus shot kind of questions. (Hmm, I last had one when I dropped a pair of garden secateurs point-first into the top of my foot. I wonder when that was exactly …?)
    And hey — any time you’re over here, let me know, although Andrew’s a far more knowledgeable guide than I am. There was hardly an aircraft at the show that he hadn’t ridden in, flown or crashed somewhere in the world!

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Reine
    Thank you so much for that. Dominoes is a lovely image of time. What happens if one gets tipped up …? No, don’t think about that!
    And what a beautiful phrase: “Memories surrounded them, while they did not live in the past.”

  19. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Phillipa
    I think if you have children, your approach to mementoes must be completely different. I love having my grandmother’s eternity ring, the hand-tinted photograph that used to hang outside the theatres when she was an actress just after the First World War, but there isn’t anybody further down the line who would be interested in that kind of thing from me, so why preserve it?

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