How old were you when you moved out of your parents’ house? That’s usually a simple question with a straightforward, numerical answer. Not for me.
My parents left the house before I did. I was 16 when my mum died, 19 when my dad did. Our home in Hornchurch, out in the east London suburbs, became a ghost house. Despite the unnerving quiet, the sparsely stocked kitchen, the two sets of keys hanging in the hallway rather than four, it was where I wanted to stay. It was the house in which I’d taken my first steps, spoken my first words, and had a million teenage sleepovers. It was the place where all my parents’ possessions were.
But we had to sell the house to pay off the inheritance tax bill, which meant clearing out those things. Making big decisions about money and property is emotional at the best of times, and this was definitely the worst of times.
My older brother hired a dumpster to keep in our driveway. Its sheer size forced me to face up to the enormity of the task ahead of us. Our parents had moved into this house in 1982, ahead of my birth the next year. Before that, they had lived in London for years, after moving halfway across the world from India. I thought of the decisions they must have made when choosing what to bring with them to live half a lifetime in England. Who was I to overrule them?
But when the time came to complete on the house sale, downsizing was the only option. We had gone from four people to just two in three years. We’d only need an apartment. My brother and I bought a two-bedroom place in Islington, north London, and rented a storage unit nearby.
In the grip of early grief, I still felt as though my parents’ things kept me close to them. When sorting through our parents’ belongings, I had to make decisions about what the future me would want to keep. Grief is a bad state in which to make decisions, and I wanted to minimize regret. What to do with my mother’s beautiful saris, totally impractical in London’s climate—would there be a new generation one day who’d delight in playing dress-up with them? At 23, I simply didn’t know. So I kept everything I thought I might someday want.
I visited the storage unit pretty frequently in those years, my early-to-mid-20s. Somewhere in that maze of long featureless corridors, behind a corrugated metal door with a heavy combination lock, was a miniature version of my childhood home. I would spend time there on the pretext of looking for a book or an item of clothing or a photo album. The unit had become a portal to the past for me, my own personal library of our family.
There was a folding chair in there I could sit on, and I would pull out boxes until I reached the metal wall at the back. Then I’d open them and dig out my mum’s old notebooks, where she wrote down her favorite quotes from literature; the star chart that had been drawn up on the day my dad was born, supposedly foretelling his fate; old birthday cards with heartfelt messages to a younger me who had been too safe and secure to truly appreciate them. It was comforting to be among the treasures of the past. I felt as though I was keeping a link back to my parents, to a time when we were a family.
The Islington apartment turned out to be a terrible, anxiety-inducing purchase, a decision made in the midst of grief, so after a few years we sold it and went our separate ways. I continue to rent in London, but I moved farther and farther away from the storage unit as the city grew exponentially more expensive.
My visits to the unit became more practical in nature, and then began to dwindle. In fact, renting and moving fairly frequently led me to slough off a lot of my possessions each time I went from one property to another. My grief, too, had been shrinking down to manageable proportions. I no longer needed the storage unit to be a place to step out of life, to sit down with my loss. It became a bit annoying, actually, a monthly charge that kept increasing.
My brother and I downsized the unit once, twice. It became easier and easier to let go of things. Time was making some of the decisions for me that I couldn’t have made at 23. There was a red jumper that I’d bought for my dad one Christmas that he’d worn all the time. In my grief dreams in the early days—vivid technicolour visions where the dead return, and you wake believing they’re alive, just before the cold, hard bolt of truth locks into place—he was always wearing it. For years, it had sat in that storage unit, washed but unused. A comfort blanket for me. I donated it to a charity shop.
Two years ago, when my brother suggested that we empty the storage unit once and for all, I was, for once, in total agreement with him. Now that he has a baby daughter, I’ve noticed a streak of sentimentality in him; it’s time for some of our parents’ things to be brought out of the shadows for her. A lot of it is at my brother’s house in another city, for now.
It’s freeing to no longer feel weighed down with so much stuff. I’ve learned that the process of grief has so much in common with falling in love, but it’s the unwinding and reshaping of love, now that one person can no longer be present. The beginning is intense, and you want to spend all your time with that person, but in grief, they’re not physically there. Their things take their place. In love, over time, the emotions calm down, and you learn to trust that the person you love is still there; in grief, they take another form. Eventually, they become so much a part of you, it’s impossible to ever truly lose them.
My parents exist now in memories and in stories rather than in objects. To keep every little thing from our short time together does them a disservice. They’re so much more than that, and only my imagination can house them now.
Suchandrika Chakrabarti is a freelance journalist, whose work has been published in The Guardian, The Times of London and the New Statesman. She makes a podcast about creativity and the internet called Freelance Pod.