My length and width swimming certificates, you never know when you might need to prove you can swim a length! (I can’t, by the way, I’m a terrible swimmer.)

A week and a half ago we moved for what I hope will be the final time. We’ve bought a house and we are finally settling down—for at least ten years, I tell myself, because despite how much I hate the stress of moving, there is still a part of me that equates settling down with stagnation and unhappiness. This was our second move in the past year, the previous move being Toronto to Victoria, and our third since moving from Amsterdam to Toronto two and half years ago. We were still using boxes for this move that we used to ship all our possessions from the UK to Amsterdam, seven years and a lifetime ago. This move was, fortunately, much shorter and simpler than the previous two—we’ve moved a positively short hop away from Victoria to the Comox Valley.

The actual packing part of this move was surprisingly easy, perhaps because we’d only just moved, so it was still quite fresh in our memories. What’s more, the difficult part of packing isn’t the pots and pans, the beds and bedding, or the table and lamp. The difficult part of packing is deciding what to do with the book your aunty bought you for Christmas ten years ago and that you so appreciate and you wish you were the kind of person who read books like that, but you’re just not. Or deciding what to do with the cowboy boots you bought before university and that symbolize a person you once wanted to be but no longer are. It’s sorting through two shoeboxes of photos and letters and mementos that have been sellotaped shut for goodness knows how many years. It’s deciding what to do with the past.

Before our last move, from Toronto to Victoria, I found myself sorting through those two shoeboxes. There were photos from my childhood—grainy, oddly sized photos of me as a baby with my dad, with my brother, with my grandparents. There were also photos I’d taken on disposable cameras, photos of me and my friends. There were birthday cards and congratulations cards and letters from my dad, my mum, my husband, and friends. Mostly, there were letters from my grandma. I read some of the letters, others I just couldn’t bring myself to look at. The past can be a strange and painful place.

Absurdly, I’d also kept my length and width swimming certificates from circa 1995. I realized I’d been carting them around and between countries for the last 15 years on the off chance that I might need to prove I can swim (I can’t actually, at least not very well, and those certificates certainly wouldn’t help me). What am I doing with all these pieces of the past? why am I holding on to them? what good are they doing in an old shoebox? I wondered. So I decided to take a photo of the letters, chuck most of the cards, and only keep a few photos, ones I’d want to make the effort to put in a photo album.

I’d sorted through most of them (all while trying to keep the baby distracted so she didn’t chew on them or tear them up) when it became clear that my grandma didn’t have long to live. I gathered up her letters and read them. I felt guilt about all the responses I didn’t write, about the poetry competitions she mentioned that I didn’t entered, and the manuscript she’d asked me to edit but that I just didn’t have time for, not yet. And yet became now and there’s no more time for some day.

But I also felt a deep sense of her love for me. I felt her pride at my achievements, at the fact that I was studying at university, at my marriage, and my baby. I always made the effort to see her when I was home, even if it was just a short visit, and I would have seen her in May last year, before she died, if it hadn’t been for COVID-19 and travel restrictions. We had spent many years apart and I was moving still further away. But as my grandmother lay dying, thousands of miles away, distance and time seemed irrelevant. I was there with her, telling her it was okay to go, and she was with me. She’s with me still, so alive, despite the funeral I watched through a video call. As they wheeled her coffin into the church, I thought that’s not her. She is her art and her writing and her letters. She is her children and her grandchildren and her great grandchildren. She is me and part of me, an egg, was formed in her.[1] She is everything she loved.

In the end, I kept all the letters and cards (though I did throw out the blurry photos and the swimming certificates). Perhaps they will still be there, in a sellotaped shoebox, many years from now. Perhaps my daughter will find them when I’m gone. Perhaps there will be other shoeboxes full of letters from her, fewer letters than I’ll send her, but treasured letters nonetheless. By then she may have left this island for bigger horizons, but I have a small hope that the place those boxes end up accumulating dust will be a place she thinks of as home. And that will be my gift from the past, from now.

[1] I discovered this fact—that since eggs form inside a baby girl while she is in the womb, the egg that made you was inside your grandmother while she was pregnant with your mother—from the Radiolab podcast series Gonads. I listened to this series while I was pregnant and found it utterly fascinating!

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