A life of possessions

My parents are in the process of resizing, downsizing and moving from Canberra to Sydney. So last week, my brother and I went back to our childhood home to help them hold a garage sale.

An informal inventory of the house revealed that my mother has enough saris to clothe a small nation and my father, enough carvings of Hindu deities to furnish his own temple (or a few). Who would have thought my mother had time to use all of that Pyrex or my father time to read all of those books. Important philosophical questions were raised such as: why did they have years of Gourmet Traveller magazines in the garage (and if they had a subscription, why did we eat rice and curry every single night for dinner?)

They have acquired and hoarded as people do, and watching them let go was telling. For example, my mother took most of my father’s possessions to the garage and thought “they” were done. My father asked her if she would like to sell him too. She smiled but didn’t answer.

In my mother’s pantry I found tinned food that expired in 2001. Prying it away from her (as she shouted, “I can still cook with that”) I remembered how every morning she would prepare dinner, cutting vegetables with the precision and elegance of a surgeon. I found the old diaries that she used to note down recipes. Apparently there’s an iphone app for storing recipes now but it won’t have the fragile texture of an ancient manuscript or the smell of roasted cumin. My mother rarely says “I love you” but every time she visits me in Sydney she brings me food.

In my father’s office we found something that looked like a Commodore 64 and teaching videos. He seems to have been collecting tongue depressors, medical swabs and surgical gloves – because you never know when you might need to dig your way out of all those patient files with a tongue depressor, clean your paper cut wounds with a swab and then fashion your surgical gloves into entertaining balloon animals for your grandchildren. My father rarely says “I love you” but every time he sees me he wants to tell me about a book he thinks I’d like (and give me a tongue depressor).

And then there were the things my brother and I wanted to keep for ourselves and for our children. We wanted:

  • my father’s first microscope glasses. My parents’ career defined us. It took courage to leave Sri Lanka, to migrate to a country that could still remember the White Australia policy, and to build that practice. It took courage, drive and determination and we grew up fluctuating between wanting to be like them and not wanting to be like them. Now I hope we are like them;
  • the sign on my father’s surgery door that bears the name of both my parents. Both are doctors but my mother supported my father’s career, putting hers third and making us her first. I grew up thinking that that choice (or necessity) was not for me. Now I realise it is and hope I can do it as well as she did;
  • a book about the travels of Marco Polo that my father won in 1953. I like to think of him, a runt of a village boy in ill-fitting hand me downs, reading that book and imagining the world he would one day conquer; and
  • my mother’s recipe diaries, finally revealing the secrets of Aunty Nagi’s coffee trifle pudding and the pathway to Love By Cholesterol.

Most telling were the things that were not sold, recycled or thrown: a lifetime of photos, every letter and postcard my brother and I sent them, every school report and merit award, a selection of books,  a 1977 Breville jaffle-maker and a whole lot of saris. If any one needs a carving of a Hindu deity (or several), let me know.

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Shankari Chandran is a recent returner after ten years in London. Formerly a social justice lawyer Shankari chronicles the day-to-day of her family’s return in her blog.

What are the strangest things you have found when cleaning out ? What couldn’t you let go of?

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