So many emotions flit across my mind when I think about memory boxes, thoughts awakened by once again picking up my copy of ‘The Memory Box’ by Margaret Forster. In this story, our heroine Catherine, on clearing out the attic of the family home discovers the memory box created by her mother who died when she was a baby. As a growing child and now adult, Catherine has been surrounded by people keen to illustrate her mother’s life to her and throughout this period she has made every attempt not to be interested. Now she is confronted with a box full of memories and this is what the author writes:
‘I wished passionately she had not done this. Who had thought of it, was it her own idea? And what had she imagined was the purpose of her legacy? To tell me about herself? To make some kind of statement? To try to share in my unknown future?’ (1999)
Of course this is fiction, Catherine is angry and wishes to deny the existence of her birth mother but then on working through the memory box discovers a complex and wonderful person and with this redefines her own identity.The concept of the memory box or even scrap book brings up lots of questions. Who should do them? When should they be done? Why would you make one? www.macmillan.org.uk website actually has a very comprehensive page answering all of these questions and makes a very good case advocating this method for use by people who know they are dying and wish to share memories with a child. Unlike the fictionalised Catherine the process of putting together the items in the box is a mutual experience, a time of storytelling, and a time accepted not only of happy memories but also sad. This process in itself is also laying down cherished memories for the child of their parent.
William Worden in his book on Grief Counselling and Therapy for Mental Health Practitioners (2001) also talks about the important part memory scrapbooks can have in helping children find ways to remember a dead person, completed if possible with family members but if not with the help of a therapist. As the child matures the box or scrapbook serves to remind them of who that person was and in some ways to provide a life affirming anchor about whom they are, especially important if this has been a close relative.
Personally I find it very difficult to put myself in the position of having to put together something like a memory box. If like Catherine’s mother I put the memories together in isolation, I can’t help thinking it might end up as a rather self- indulgent and biased set of items. What words would you write to a loved one? Your own view of your life is just that, your own view. How could you give a rounded and honest picture? Do you give clues to a murky past at the risk of besmirching your loved ones memory of you? I simply don’t have the answers to these questions and I leave them for you to ponder. I do know however that in my own experience that some of my most treasured memories of my own mother who died when I was 18 are linked to the casual things she left behind. When I was 15 I spent the summer away and my mother wrote me a letter, I have kept this and sometimes look at it to remind myself of how she was and how she spoke without the cloud of impending death hanging over her. I also wear her wedding ring and have a small picture of my mother as a young woman framed and next to my bed. These are small tokens, I have chosen them, they don’t affect me in a negative way and I don’t really notice them day to day but occasionally I will make a note and use them as an anchor. They are my own way of remembering a complex human being and my relationship to her as my mother, the good and not so good.
Maybe then there is some value in having concrete items that link you to memories of a loved one (without attaching too much emotion that this then becomes an issue)but also that can be just be part of the story. If we have been close to someone for any length of time we also have memories we keep in our head; a gesture they used to make, the feel of their hands, the way they used to get angry or the food they loved to eat, these are all ways of remembering. Again I leave you to ponder this thought.
If you would like to share your views on this subject I would love to hear them.
www.macmillan.co.uk Accessed 22nd/01/2015
Forster,Margaret (1999). Memory box. London: Chatto and Windus. p13.
Worden, J.William (2001). Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy; a handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner,Susex:Routledge. P235.