My Box of Memories

Pears soap, Emma Claire’s recent trinket gift has a special place in my family history too. It was the choice of my father’s own Grandma and, because of the childhood memories he associated with it, a favourite of his too.

Consequently, at least in the early years, it was the only soap we used at home. On receiving this broken sliver of amber, I found myself immediately transported by its familiar stickiness and herb-like scent to long-ago bath times at Eastfield Crescent, sitting in the tub with my little sister, our singing voices competing with the noise of the electric fan.

Emma Claire, this trinket that stands both for Bam-Bam and the ghost of your novel in its earlier forms, has now been safely shut away in my own memory box. It’s been a discovery, though perhaps not an entirely surprising one, to learn that this tendency to memorialise our pasts is just another thing we share in common.

But, in keeping with the last of our February posts, I’m keener now to acknowledge the differences between us too. I’ve stored away a petalled pink and green ballet headdress, a tiny scented satin bag from Japan that (even after eighteen years) still somehow keeps its perfume, and – having grown up in a non-religious household – there are no equivalents to your christening bracelets.

The trinket I have removed to make way for your soap, Em, is the inner-most part of a Russian Doll.

Gift for EmmaI have fractured memories of playing with its outer casings as a child, painted wooden shells that split apart to reveal the series of dolls inside them. I don’t know what happened to those exterior pieces. Did they get cracked, or lost over time? Did my mother pass the doll to a friend without realising its heart was missing?

At some stage, anyway, I must have found this solitary little doll, the only part that couldn’t be broken into two, and decided I wanted to save it.

Some of its varnish has come away and the red and green of the painted clothing has faded to nothing in places. But I feel certain that someone who can see the brighter amber in a broken bar of Pears soap will overlook the many scuff marks, and be able to enjoy this small memento of her friend from a time many years before she knew her.

Broken Things

Emma’s gift for Emily The trinkets contained in this jewellery box show that I was a child intent on self-memorialising: christening bracelets; gymnastics medals; my annual bus passes; the label from my first bra.

But the object that I’ve removed from the jewellery box to pass on to you, Emily, is a memento of Bam-bam – my grandma. After she died, when I was just nine, I took this bar of Pears soap as a keepsake and its scent of thyme still reminds me of her.

Bam-bam wore fur coats and visited the hairdresser every week; she fed me milk loaf and strawberry splits; people gathered around the piano when she played; the local librarians all knew her by name. After she died, we found exercise books stacked in her bedside cabinet all of them filled with her own handwritten poems.

For me, the search for literary ancestresses stems back to the discovery that my own grandma was a closet writer. My dad kept her exercise books and I have treasured her bar of Pears soap.

So now, Em, you have a little more insight into the importance of Pears soap in The Waifs and Strays of Sea View Lodge. Or, I should say, the significance it used to have. The soap is now only mentioned here and there, no longer carrying the symbolic weight it had in earlier drafts – drafts that you read and critiqued. Only you, who have accompanied me on every step of this long writing journey, would detect in the final version the lingering scent of Pears soap.

In a way, then, may this memento stand for everything that’s written out, for our shared dedication to voicing stories that have previously been silenced. After all, with its focus on female friendship – a neglected aspect of literary lore – this is what Something Rhymed is all about.

Sadly, this trinket must also stand for broken things. Although I’d kept the bar of soap intact for decades, packing and unpacking it every time I moved house, I dropped it when I reached into a high cupboard to fetch it for you.

After my initial dismay, I realised that there’s perhaps something appropriate about this. I’ve always been drawn to broken things: derelict funfairs; threadbare cardigans; people whose surface resilience hides their distress.

My grandma was broken by the death of her eldest son and the disintegration of her marriage. In writing this message to you, Em, it strikes me that in my novel I offer an elderly woman a last chance to be healed – a chance my grandma never seized.

But there’s beauty in the broken, isn’t there, Em? I know that you too will appreciate the brighter amber that was revealed when the bar of Pears soap splintered, its headier scent of thyme.