by Anne Stephenson
The garage floor is standing in water. For several months the overflow pipe has been sending a cascade over the old desk that used to stand in my father's dispensary. On the desk are two substantial sodden cardboard boxes. These have been here since the move from the chemist shop to the bungalow over twenty years ago. I open the first box to reveal damp old magazines, holiday brochures, a framed picture or two which bring smiles of remembrance. Then, the first of the photograph albums. The first aren't so bad. Slightly damp, but the coloured snaps of American holidays my parents enjoyed are in albums with plastic covers and the photos are slotted into protective sleeves. They are a little damp but nothing to worry about. I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as I discover towards the bottom of the box the wet saturated mass of the old albums belonging to my parents in the first years of marriage and to both sets of grandparents. There are also lots of individual black and white photographs; my dad captured in a series of passport style poses in his RAF uniform, my uncles inspecting a box of apples before they are loaded on a lorry and others of people I don't recognise. Then a thick piece of paper, wet, folded, some kind of certificate? I carefully peel the folds apart to reveal my Dad's certificate of registration as a pharmacist, I carefully fold it back up. Things too wet or of little interest go straight in to the dustbin but I carefully load what I think I can salvage into bin bags and put them in the boot of my car. I will dry things out at home away from the anxious gaze of my mother who is now in her nineties. I feel it will make her too nostalgic and be too much of an upset to her routine to have them around her. Before I drive away I tell her the boxes had old magazines and papers in and I've thrown them away. I head south with a precious cargo.j
Once I arrive home I begin to prop up the less damaged books with their pages open to allow them to dry. I peel apart the random pieces of paper and lay them out to dry. There is a receipt from a department store in Bridlington, long since closed. AA routes individually planned for various car journeys made before the advent of the motorway and the sat nav. A brochure for the Kilbirnie Hotel in Newquay, several Newquay brochures from the sixties with bikini and trunk clad surfers of the era in classic poses which now look slightly camp. All bring back memories of happy family holidays. There are photos from the same era too, coloured snaps and slides. Then there are the old, old albums. The pages are so sodden the albums can't be saved except for an odd page or two. I photograph the front of the albums and peel away the photographs. On some the images have been completely washed away. Others are still partially intact; the wedding group with hopeful smiling faces still look out despite the loss of feet or the edges where one or two guests are no longer visible. Others have only a ghostly image left, sometimes with blurry streaks running vertically across the page. They remind me of Francis Bacon's portraits of the 'screaming popes' which I recently saw at Ferens gallery. His portraits still had a trace of the splendour of the original by Velasquez; these photos still bear the trace of the happy times they once captured.
As I carefully peel the images apart I try to preserve as much as I can. The process means I concentrate on each aspect of an image so I notice small details I would never have seen if I was just looking through the intact album. Sometimes I am struck by white gloved hands, or the bizarre hat of a long dead relative who I can't identify. It is a strange sad process and many images are completely lost but I feel a sense of completion in the knowledge they have been gazed at and held with such care this one last time. The wet pages of the albums still bear the descriptions carefully written by either one of my grandmas or my mother, although in most cases the pictures they titled have fallen from the page and now lay scattered, drying all around me. One empty space has the inscription above "Mother", and below "God bless her" written lovingly in old fashioned script. Now they have been separated from their labels and are no longer in the ordered rows the collection is somehow diminished. Separated random snaps rather than being a coherent part of a community of people telling the story of this or that side of the family or this or that time and place. Now they are haphazardly laid out to dry they are truly united in one family and no one is more important than another. There is no first page or odd member who was just slotted in between the sheets rather than stuck in their proper place.
In many pictures I recognise an uncle, aunt or grandparent. They are part of a jolly group on a outing, or posing for their wedding photograph or snapped on holiday or in uniform before leaving for war. There are some where I don't recognise any of the faces. I wonder what my children will make of these images of relatives of whom they have no personal memory. Perhaps they won't be interested, perhaps they will only value those whom they themselves can recognise and name. Perhaps this exercise in remembering is after all only for my benefit, but somehow I feel it is important to look at these faces one more time to acknowledge and make friends with the past and lay it to rest.
Inspired by Photographs from Clifton St, Hornsea (February, 2017).