Friday, 16 August 2013

Week 8: the cabinet of memories

How often do strangers spontaneously invite passers-by to enter their homes? And then show them around each room, into each intimate corner of their dwelling?

I can't remember it ever having happened to me before.

Week 8 of Our Time of Gifts saw me and my children on a local street, inspecting a low, squat table with a slightly grubby applique design that someone had left outside their house, to be taken by a person in need of a shabby chic coffee table.

An upstairs window opened, and a woman's head emerged from the house. Soft, 50-ish, and a bit fuzzy around the edges. Did we want any more furniture, Gloria asked. She was moving, and the house was full of stuff she no longer needed.

Intrigued, I followed her into a place that was messy with memories. As she showed me round, two small, off-white dogs scuttled across floors strewn with clothes, papers and the occasional empty wine bottle. No room was left unexplored; we were even escorted into her bedroom, to look at a couple of cabinets she was hoping to exchange for a small amount of money. The religious iconography peppering the rest of the house - bejewelled Virgin Mary on the side of a bag, embellished cross hanging on the inside of the front door - was nowhere to be seen in this room. Instead, a portrait of Frida Kahlo hung on the wall, her level, wide-eyed gaze challenging us to stare back at her strong face; at the solitary tear rolling down her cheek.

Gloria shared Frida's sadness. Her eyes welled up and her voice cracked at least seven times while we were there. When I asked whether she was moving far away. In her bedroom, while she was proudly showing me the beautiful cabinet that I thought would be perfect for our own home. As she shouted at one of the little dogs for jumping up to the table and stealing a piece of pizza. While she explained that she was moving because of a break-up.

And she cried as we left, when I told her I would be keen to take the elegant, solid walnut bedroom cabinet she'd shown me. I'd be willing to pay for it; she just had to name the price. 'It's gorgeous.'

'I know', she responded, fanning the tears that had sprung up once again. 'I love it too.'

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to writer Jane Moss, who is exploring the meaning that objects can have in people's lives. Over the years, we build up treasured possessions. Some mark certain phases of our lives; others stay with us, hanging in the background to wallpaper our memories. Rarely noticed, but always there.

Gloria's bedroom cabinet clearly meant a great deal to her, but she was being forced to sell it so that she could downsize. It seems doubly cruel that, at a time when bonds that previously held her world together were coming apart, she also had to sell her home and, piece by piece, dismantle her familiar surroundings.

This week, my gift was a bottle of wine and a card that I left at Gloria's doorstep, to say thank-you for showing us round her home.

Image copyright Francis Storr


  1. Gloria sounds amazing, but what a sad story! We've picked up quite a bit (ahem) of second hand furniture this week and I like the idea that it's had a past before it came to us but I guess I never thought that it could be a sad past too? I'm glad though that she found someone she was happy for her things to go to x

  2. I feel for Gloria. I went through the painful process of giving away our outgrown baby clothes a year ago. Each item seemed like a key to a headful of memory and I couldn't help wondering how much of it would slip into obscurity once I gave away the means to unlock it.
    To make things worse, (though I can't say with any real certainty why, only that it seemed like abandonment) we had just moved from the UK to Canada so I had to let these treasured items slip from my grasp into a great unknown, far from home. I gave them to a shelter for battered women and tried to comfort myself with the knowledge they would help someone who needed it.

    1. Thank you for sharing this story. It's true, familiar objects give comfort, especially when everything else is changing. It's wonderful that you were able to help out others with your baby clothes.

  3. Such a sad story - totally agree with how cruel it is, but I hope she was touched by your kindness.