Years ago, on a weekend trip to Brussels, I stopped short in the Marolles flea market at a stall that was filled with the very intimate belongings of someone who’d lived a long time ago – in particular, wedding portraits and posed family groups that must have been printed at huge expense a hundred years earlier. “How tragic!” I said to the boyfriend I was travelling with, “that no one living in these families wants these precious things.”
I thought about it again, five-odd years later, when I was helping my mother clear out our family home in advance of a sale. Who wanted a giant portrait of a long-dead relative or a silver cigarette case that must once have been someone’s most treasured possession, when we didn’t know who these people were? Each of us spends but a short time on the planet – and the legacy of things that we leave behind may have a shorter lifespan than we’d like to think.
I thought often of Marolles, and of my mother’s basement, as I read Susannah Walker’s The Life Of Stuff. On one level, the book is a memoir particular to Walker’s experience of clearing out the home of her mother, a hoarder, after her death. But, beyond the personal story, the book asks big questions about why we keep things, what they mean to us, why we leave them behind and what stories they tell to the people who inherit them.
There is an urge to hang on to a useless or ugly possession not because we love it but because, in some way, it feels like a tangible reminder of what we perceive to be the worst – and most human – part of ourselves
“For most of my life I’ve been worried about what I might inherit from my mother,” Walker writes. Her mother’s life was unhappy and difficult; their family bond was, too. At eight, she went to live with her father after her parents’ marriage broke down, and Walker and her mother, Patricia, never lived together again; Walker clearly loved her mother, but the reciprocity was not clear. Their relationship was distant, difficult and sometimes hostile. Patricia lived in her house, Rose Terrace, for 30 years and, when she died at 77 – after a fall, but also after years of chronic alcoholism and depression – Walker and her brother felt compelled to clear out the hoarded contents of the house, “swamped in paper and rubbish… Regardless of what she had – or had not – done for us when she was alive, it still fell to me and my brother to sort the mess out.”
The book is a journey of labour, of the physical kind – the nitty-gritty of moving through the piles of unwanted items, much of it water-damaged and dusty – but also of emotional labour. As Walker unpicks the contents of her mother’s home, she also unravels parts of her mother’s life that were once opaque. An important discovery is a silver napkin ring, engraved with the name of Patricia’s brother, Alastair, who died in childhood – a great family tragedy. “No one cares about napkin rings these days,” Walker notes, but in the first half of the 20th century they were considered essential kit to a certain kind of middle-class family, given as a birth or christening present, “a sign of who belongs and who does not". When Walker finds the napkin ring, it is tarnished black, crammed in the back of a brimming cupboard, but it also represents “the crux of my mother’s unhappiness and how it began in her childhood”.
Hoarding is a complex mental illness. Walker concludes that it’s a kind of self-defence, a way of creating distance between oneself and other people. More than an armour – a tangible confirmation of the hoarder’s belief that she is unappealing or unworthy of love. Even for those who do not hoard, this may ring familiar – the urge to hang on to a useless or ugly possession not because we love it but because, in some way, it feels like a tangible reminder of what we perceive to be the worst – and most human – part of ourselves.
While Patricia’s relationship with things was unusual, and even pathological, it’s impossible to leave Walker’s book without reconsidering your own possessions, what they mean to you and what you hope they’ll mean to someone else. Walker chooses to hang on to some of her mother’s items not because she cares for them, but because she would feel disloyal to her mother to allow the story that they hold within to be erased. If Marie Kondo has taught us all to ruthlessly clear our lives of stuff, then Walker compels us to think carefully about what we’ll hang on to.
Susannah Walker’s The Life Of Stuff is published by Doubleday