I was invited to read at the Isle of Skye reading Room. This is a group of people who meet once a month to share their love of the written word. Published writers are invited to read from their work and there is an open mike part of the evening. I have what amounts to a phobia about public speaking due to a slight stutter which becomes more pronounced the more nervous I get. No pressure then when Charlotte from the Reading Room invited me to read something at a meeting. So here is what I took along that evening…
“But they’re fish knives.”
“Yes, but they were grannies fish knives, they have historical context.”
“When was the last time you used a fish knife? With or without a historical context. You haven’t even used them in a post ironic way like I did with my parents’ gateaux forks!”
“Nevertheless, they are staying. What about the rubbish you have?”
“A geiger counter.”
“You never know when you’ll need one”
“No, I know I’ll never need one. You will be the one who will never know, because it’s going out!
A wise friend once told us that possessions weigh you down. Consequently we are trying to clear some space in our loft. We have accumulated the mementos of previous generations. The attic floor groans under the weight of the knick knacks and heirlooms of previous generations on both sides of our family.
Some things were kept because they were strange. Though I am resigned to seeing the Geiger counter in the local charity shop window. Other things were kept because they remind us of people, places and times we have lost touch with. They are our only connection with them. We look at them or pick them up and remember or imagine.
The snag is as this accumulation of heirlooms are passed through the generations their resonance and importance is diluted.
“There you go children your Mum’s parents used to own a hotel so here is all the silverware from its restaurant, to make sure you never forget them. Oh, and before you start planning to sell it all after we’re gone it’s plated and it’s not worth much but as you lug half a hundred weight of milk jugs, coffee pots and big silver bowls through life think fondly of your grandparents…who you never met ”
Lucky I didn’t keep any mementos of my dad’s work, he owned a garage.
“Here you are kids, a set of whitworth spanners and a trolley jack. They were your grandfathers…even though you never met him either … treasure them.
So, some of the things we were keeping were a little ridiculous. But others are important, a vital link to our past. Some of them, if they could talk could tell your life story.
My mug is an example as it has a few stories to tell. It probably knows more about me than most people do. Over the years I have told it just about all the momentous things that have happened to me.
I bought it when I was 17 or 18. Not quite sure but it was there or there abouts. I do know where I bought it, somewhere near Bridge of Allan. Or was it Stirling? Anyway it was at a caravan park where my first girlfriend was staying with friends. My friend and I went to visit in my first car. That I do remember; a bright orange Datsun 100A with brakes that worked eventually and a clutch that worked maybe. It was the longest journey I had made so far, Glasgow to Bridge of Allan, or Stirling.
I bought the mug because I was all grown up now and because us grown-ups didn’t drink coke or limeade anymore we drank tea or coffee because we were sophisticated. And because we were sophisticated we drank our hot beverages out of mugs not cups. Unfortunately my parents weren’t at all sophisticated, they drank there tea out of cups, from the sixties. Cups and saucers which looked like they had been made by Pyrex, probably were, they were popular in Glasgow and Clyde coast cafes in the sixties and seventies. Social death in the style conscious early eighties. So I bought a mug. If I had thought it through I would have bought a set. But, hey, I was 17 or 18 and thinking things through was years away.
So the mug became MY mug. No one else used it. My mum understood these things and since it had a balloon and a rainbow on it my Dad wouldn’t use it because it was “poofy.” Strangely, even though he meant it to be insulting I don’t think he really grasped the true meaning of what he said or it was the first thing that came to mind when he was trying to put me down and he couldn’t be bothered coming up with the right epiphet to further reduce my teenage self confidence. Playing rugby was “poofy” a “jessies” game. He would then get all worked up about the various cuts, bruises, aches and strains I would come home with. It was then “too rough.” I also looked and smelt like a “gayboy” when going out with my girlfriend. Girlfriend, Dad not boyfriend! I have photos of what I looked like going out then and I didn’t look like a “gayboy” I looked like an utter dick, but still as heterosexual as early eighties fashion would allow. I’m assuming I didn’t smell gay either as I imagine any self respecting gay person wouldn’t have smelt of Hi Karate/Brute/whatever I got for Christmas.
The mug was busy when I still lived at home because my Mum made very popular coffee buns. If you ask any of my friends from then what was the reason they came to mine they will all say it was my Mum’s legendary coffee buns. They were dunked heaven.
As time moved on most, if not all, the great and important things that happened, were discussed with the mug sitting in front of me. Pronouncements of great import were made after the kettle had boiled.
My first girlfriend chucked me with the mug sitting between us. I was particularly put out about that as she timed it to be just after her birthday and I had splashed out on the Bob Marley Legend album to impress her (lucky I taped it first). I told my parents about other girlfriends comings and goings while with the help of the mug (see Dad, not gay). I argued with my parents about political correctness hiding behind the mug (dad! There is nothing wrong with being gay. No I am not gay, but…etc), I told them about jobs, holidays, funny things, sad things, angry things, embarrassing thing, triumphs and disappointments. The mug was always there.
I announced that I was getting married, buying a flat, having a baby, selling the flat, buying a house. All with the mug’s undying, undivided attention. The mug was there full of hot reassuring tea to greet me, when I arrived at my parents house carrying my clothes in bin bags to declare the end of my marriage. It didn’t comment or judge, it just sat and listened. It didn’t cheer like my parents did when I found another flat and moved out of what was my old bedroom but they pointedly called the spare room, it just waited patiently for my next visit.
It witnessed the start of my romance with my wife Rosie. It listened to another announcement of marriage and more house moves, job changes and all the other upheavals as my life careered haphazardly on.
It sat before me steaming comfortingly while my mother and I discussed my fathers’s lung cancer, MRSA decline and death. I drank a lot of tea with my Mum then. Making tea was one of the mundane things that helped her cope with that dreadful trauma. She was the sort who drew comfort from a routine.
The mug also gave the first indications of my mother’s mental unravelling. It would be placed in front of me with half made tea in it. My mother had no idea that what she had done was wrong. It was the first sign of the Alzheimer’s that steadily stripped her of all her abilities. She was being robbed of her routine. The stages could be measured in her tea making. Later she could understand the concept of a cup of tea but had no idea how one was made. It was at this point that the relationship with my mug changed. My mother was hospitalised and the mug sat in the little retirement flat my mother had bought after my father’s death and had little time to enjoy. It waited for me to stay there while visiting my mother. I began to use it less then as I became worried I might damage or break it and lose it like I was losing my mother.
The mug, thankfully, has never offered advice, praise or criticism. It has just observed. I wonder what it might have to say about the life it has watched unfolding. In fact no, I don’t want to wonder I think I like its silence. It would be a very uncomfortable experience listening to what it has to say.
Sometimes, however, I wish it had piped up at certain time just to give me a nudge every so often. It might have told me not to get so upset when your first girlfriend dumps you. Just wait and see what romantic fate is ahead of you, the first one is kiddy stuff, besides you recorded the album. It could have advised me not discuss music, films, politics or anything that happens to anyone younger than your parents with your parents, it’s a complete waste of time. It could have cautioned me to never dunk anything in it for more than 3 seconds. Anything more than that spells a sludgy disaster.
I have brought the mug to our house now. It is safely bubble wrapped and hidden in our loft I feel very strange about doing that. Have I broken off my ties with my past? My mug has always been at my parents’ house, it was my connection with it and them. Proof that I still belonged there. But I don’t have parents now. It seems I have taken over their role. My 19 year old daughter who has left for college now tells me all that’s happening to her and I am beginning to have a little understanding of what my parents went through with me. Maybe I told my parents more than they wanted to hear. I certainly wish my daughter would edit the adventures in her world of freedom a little.
So there it is, my mug with a story. But it’s our story just between me and the mug. It is precious only to me. It’s just a mug to everybody else. Rosie has pointed out that in some cultures the deceased’s possessions are smashed during their funeral. Other cultures bury stuff with the departed. I now know why. It is to stop children arguing over who has to keep dad’s stupid, precious mug.