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The saga of zany Granny's memory box



I was 19 when my paternal grandmother died. It was my first experience of bereavement, and I felt that life could not be imagined without our zany, wacky Granny, a born entertainer and a rock-like tower of strength. I railed inwardly against this injustice, and wanted everything she had left behind to disappear in some sort of spontaneous combustion.

Annie's Box, written by Randal KeynesEverything was a painful reminder: the Bible, the hymn book, the crystal vases and bowls she had saved for her six granddaughters, the pieces of crochet that were her great interest, the box of photographs from the family past. 

Of course time did its usual work, and that particular feeling dissipated, especially when I learned that the Victorians, with their habits of braiding lengths of hair into brooches and preserving pictures in lockets, were great believers in mementoes.

Eventually I read Annie's Box, written by Randal Keynes, direct descendant of Charles Darwin. Charles and Emma Darwin were unusual and exemplary parents, Darwin confessing to being fascinated by his children, in a period when parental fascination was rare. When Annie, their first daughter and apparently a most winning child, died at the age of ten, both parents were emotionally shattered. Decades later, Keynes discovered a box in which Emma had deposited a few keepsakes and items that had belonged to Annie.

When my mother was a young woman, her brother, a pilot on active service in New Guinea, made her a present of a locally made and carved camphor wood box. I don't suppose people use the label glory box now, but that is what we always called it. In it Mum kept the things she accumulated for her trousseau, another outdated term: her linen and lingerie, and the shoeboxes containing wartime correspondence between her and Dad.

One day those boxes disappeared. 'We took the letters out, we read them to ourselves and to each other, we laughed and cried, and at the end of the day we burned the lot.' So Mum told me. But there were various cherished items left, such as the satin-covered horse-shoe shape she carried on her wedding day: it is now here in my Greek house. She also kept her grandfather's hand-made christening bonnet and some of his old school exercise books.

My Greek mother-in-law also had a box, a trunk, really, a feature of most Greek households at a time when migration was often part of an uncertain life. In it, she stored the personal and household items she had woven, sewn and embroidered herself, along with an expensive, high-quality winding sheet she had purchased for her teleftaio taxithi, the last journey. Whereas Mum's box was scented with camphor, Yiayia's contained sticks of oregano, for its perfume and for its moth-fighting qualities. A whiff of either aroma triggers my memory.


"I heaved a sigh of relief on receiving this news, for I really did not want this tangible link with my mother and sister to disappear."


When Mum died, my sister became custodian of the glory box. All too soon she died as well, and my cousin, Mum's niece, took over: her father had made Mum that long-ago present. But then came the threat of change and downsizing. What was to happen to the box? The spectres of sales and second-hand shops loomed, with the prospect of this sentimental treasure being merely regarded as a bit of old junk, its contents lost. I couldn't have it shipped to Greece, and in any case, I didn't want it to leave Australia.

But sometimes things work together for good. My brother has two daughters, and the younger one will have her Granny's box. I heaved a sigh of relief on receiving this news, for I really did not want this tangible link with my mother and sister to disappear.

While the box saga was going on, I read an alarming piece about the transient nature of the digital world. Mobile phones get stolen and photos not backed up are then irrevocably lost; I learned painfully about such loss, having had my photos disappear in a twinkling one dark day. And it appears that flash drives and their capacities do not last forever. Print out was the author's advice. Who would have thought it? But I confess I felt comforted and perhaps not such a dinosaur, after all.

And that lesson of long ago has been reinforced: sometimes we need material reminders as a trigger for memory.



Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, memory, Greece, Charles Darwin



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Existing comments

Thanks Gillian, for a rather sentimental article about your treasured family records. I have committed copies of old photographs and family letters to four hard drives kept at different locations, but of course there is always the possibility that these things could be tossed into a cupboard for years while retrieval technology changes. I also have a box of originals, though not as quick to access are always more interesting to look through I find. There is always something special about the original!

John Whitehead | 02 August 2019  

A lovely article and I’m so glad everything found a happy owner. My relatives are uninterested in much of what I have inherited from several generations, so I can only hope they can dispose of it eventually to people who want and can use it. The photos will undoubtedly be thrown away!

Juliet | 03 August 2019  

If we are not careful, posterity will cease to exist, along with the keepsakes, tokens and memorabilia which are too often considered worthless or obsolete. Digitisation is a marvellous invention, but, while it can complement the actual objects it seeks to record, it cannot entirely replace them. An archaeologist who has worked in Greece for fifty years told me recently that seeing a ten-thousand-year-old thumbprint in clay where the handle meets the curve of a pot is one of the rewards of his profession. It is the personal connection that objects enable us to make that forges the spark of continuity engendering a sense of belonging, community, being part of a larger story. This is not mere sentimentality, it is an agent of the meaningful. Objects that mean something to us in this way are, in their way, messengers, signifiers, even if we as individuals are the only surviving possessors of the keys to what they encode. Surely this makes such personal keepsakes even more precious and unique, because they are mnemonics, and without our memory and memories, what are we?

Jena Woodhouse | 04 August 2019  

A very timely piece when we are being encouraged to de clutter and get rid of stuff. I hope I can find a suitable recipient for my treasures but I will probably have to find a suitably small box. My sister has many mementoes from my parents and it is always enjoyable to share the memories.

Maggie | 06 August 2019  

My grandchildren's lives are captured on thousands and thousands of digital images stored on the iPhones and computers of all their various relatives. I sometimes wonder if even a small fraction of these images will even be viewed again. Other times I wonder if some technological catastrophe will render the lot irretrievable at some point. There is something very special about a blurry old photo or a yellowing and creased old letter being pulled from an old box. An old email or photo retrieved from a server just doesn't feel the same. Thanks Gillian.

Stephen | 08 August 2019  

Thank you Gillian. And very well said, Jena!

John RD | 13 August 2019  

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