What We Keep

Recently I paid an enormous sum of money to fly back to the area of Canada I come from. I wasn’t born in Halifax, Nova Scotia but most of my family lives there now. It is where my mother chose to spend her final days on earth. It is also the place where my sister lives, in a house with a basement where I have stored many of my belongings since I moved to England fifteen years ago.

I have not ventured home often since my move to Europe. When my mother was alive we met up in Florida over the Christmas holidays. I used my vacation days to see new parts of the world. And time has a way of ticking by faster than we would like. Somehow or another, it was my first trip home in four years when I landed. No one was waiting as I got off the plane and it saddened me. When my father was alive he was always at the gate, his shock of white hair making him stand out from everyone else. When he was alone, as he often was, I would yell, ‘Hello, Dad!’ and give him a big hug. My mother never approved of my exuberances, right until the very end. I was more sedate when she was with him at the airport.

On this trip my sister was picking me up, but she was running late. In the end that was a good thing, as I heard myself being paged and learned I had grabbed the wrong suitcase from the conveyer belt. When I exchanged cases with the rightful owner, I all but walked on my knees, grovelling apology after apology.

‘Don’t worry about it. These things happen,’ he said. I felt a bit of a shock at his words. I felt the genuineness of it. I felt the kindness. I felt the relaxed approach to life that does not exist in London. My sister was late and a random stranger was kind. I was indeed home.

We left the airport, driving along the back roads as I marvelled at the beauty of eastern Canada: the endless lakes that dot Nova Scotia, the feeling of community that seems to float out the front doors that line the roads. A cake my niece and her children baked for me greeted me on my sister’s table. It was a multi-layer blue and white concoction decorated with everything from teddy grahams to fruit roll ups. It looked like something the Cat in the Hat would have baked on that rainy day he was inside with the kids. I loved it so much I didn’t want to cut it. But I did. We had a tea party. It was very sweet, both the cake and the party.

I think it was the second day of the trip when I started going through the boxes in my sister’s house. Each trip I cull more and more. Things I thought I couldn’t live without that I now donate to the Salvation Army with ridiculous ease. Wine glasses I have been saving for my forever home? Gone. Caithness glass purchased on my first trip to Scotland? Maybe someone’s life will be improved by the money spent on it at a charity shop. That’s the kind of stuff I think about, now that I am older. A big tea kettle shaped like a grape, bought as a wedding present for someone I never cared for and am not in touch with? Well, that promoted my sister to say, ‘Why on earth would you buy something so ugly?’ We had a good laugh before I tossed it out, too. One simple action and the history and the object were gone.

First edition Calving and Hobbes? I was happy just seeing them and hugged them to my heart. Old Christmas cards and letters. I started going through them, finding a Valentine from someone I barely dated. It was the nicest card anyone ever sent me. Of course I kept it.

I was making some good headway when I saw it, the familiar brown fur poking out at me. Well, not fur. The fuzz they put on stuffed animals. My old ET doll. I picked him up like he was part Faberge egg, part puppy. I knew he was there, but it still felt like the best kind of surprise when I found him. Like he was waiting for me, like my dad used to do.

I was twelve when I went to the theatre to see ET. It was some sort of rite of passage, the first movie I went to with friends, no parent in sight. Although the only movie I saw with my mother I was seventeen and she wanted to go see Song of the South. I drove, she paid. ‘Wasn’t the little bluebird cute?’ she said as I started the car. That’s all I really remember. And it’s more than I remember about ET. But then the merchandising took hold, and I was desperate for an ET doll. I did not think I would get one. My mother had a dislike of cuddly toys I still don’t get. They collected dust? Were a waste of money? I don’t know. But I remember the day my brother David, fourteen years my senior and one of my very favourite people at the time got out of his big blue car with a Dominion Playworld bag in his hands.

That was the posh toy store that sold ET. I remember being excited and nervous. Was it for me or his girlfriend?

I remember him handing me the bag, and I remember ET staring up at me. It was a little bit of magic that still lives in my memory in vivid detail. I had an ET doll! I called my friend to tell her. I ran around the house. I hope I thanked my brother.

Childhood moved on. I’m not sure what replaced ET. Smurfs, maybe. Make up. I cringe when I think of the purple Maybelline eyeshadow I once wore. Some toys were given away. Most of them, actually. But not my ET doll. Never.

ET didn’t make it to university with me. He stayed behind at my parent’s house. He didn’t make it to British Columbia or Toronto or even London, not at first. But this time I decided he was coming home. My sister gave me a Samsonite carry on for all the stuff I was taking back. I never fly with a carryon, as I detest lugging stuff around. This time I had two, and might I say it was great fun trying to navigate the tube with no free hands. I was so tired when I got home it took a few days to unpack. When I opened the carry on ET was staring up at me, like he was waiting for me, as he always has. So he’s here now, an honorary Brit. He’s in pretty good shape, save for a small hole under his arm perhaps caused by all the waving I used to make him do and a bad case of osteoarthritis, maybe from all the years he’s logged in a crate.

I parted with more expensive things. I kept what I had an emotional connection to. What made me happy. Maria Kondo would be proud.  

A friend of mine said there might be some value in the ET doll. I could probably sell it on eBay.

‘I’d never part with him. It would hurt too much.’ Like an old friend, we might not have seen each other much, but there was comfort in knowing he was still there.

It’s funny, the things that matter when you get older. But magic is magic no matter your age. And sometimes that magic comes in the form of old toys and tea parties. On my expensive trip home, it certainly did for me.

ET enjoying my back garden.
My fabulous cake. Please note the Teddy Grahams reclining on fruit rollups.

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