It’s been three weeks since I returned from a trip back to my hometown of Ottawa. I haven’t wanted to write about it until now as I found it strangely confusing. The object of my trip was to help my sister S carry on clearing out the house that I and my six siblings grew up in. “Get a skip”, people said. “Just throw it all away!” But this is not so easy. There is the ecological side of just chucking everything into landfill, which upsets all of us. My mother passed on her proto-environmentalism to all of her children. And then there is the emotional side. When objects have been collected by people who once loved these objects, and these people are people you love, a chain is created that is hard to break.
And then there is the practical side of it all.
The house we grew up in which is still sitting there almost empty, almost ready to be put up for sale was full of beautiful objects and personal items and pieces of art and books that all deserve a home. To give you an idea, here are a few things we found whilst going through papers belonging to my father:
Letters from Eliott Erwitt to my father about a night of drinking they survived in New York City in the 1950s.
Love letters written to my mother from my father which are truly heartbreaking
Beautifully designed slide rules from his years studying engineering at MIT
Letters and photos from writers and photographers from all over the world about every subject imaginable
Some of my father’s early attempts at drawing. Some good, others not so good
120 silk ties collected over 50 years from around the world
Notes my father made about his upbringing which shed light on him as a father, a man, and a photographer
Notes and images on the photo show he designed for Expo ’67 in Montreal (where I had my first early memories)
But then there are also boxes of empty journals, several copies of the same book (intended as presents but my father presumably ran out of interested parties for these books), knick-knacks, unsavoury Internet print-outs, photocopies of photographs and then more photos of these photocopies and then photocopies of these photos of photocopies. Is there a name for someone who saves photos of photocopies of their own photos? A Photophiliac? There is a sort of madness inherent in much that has been left in my parents’ house.
I am not sure my father is a hoarder. I am using the present tense here because he is still alive. He is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s and lives in a long-term care facility. He is still alive, and yet on the surface he is not the same man who raised me. I often find myself slipping into the past tense when I mention him, which I know is wrong and I try and correct myself. But the influence he had on my life was huge. So much that I like about my life and so much that I battle with are down to my father and my total unguarded love for him. His appetite for life was enormous. This encompasses food and drink, cigars, playing the maracas, listening to Dizzy Gillespie at top volume, singing to the Clancy Brothers, Belly-dancing, Flamenco (in fact any kind of dancing), a love of art, theatre, design, architecture, and almost any creative act (except video art which he found interminably dull as a rule: “it’s not film and it’s not photography, what the hell is it,” I can hear him say.)
But I digress. I think my father probably was a hoarder. But he didn’t hoard mail-order can openers and slippers from the Sears Catalogue. He hoarded clippings that were of interest to him. As if by piling up writing by people he liked about subjects he was interested in he would somehow ingrain those words in the right order into his mind. He hoarded posters. We have dozens of them from all over the world, dating back to the 1960s. Some of them are beautiful. What to do with them all? And he hoarded photo annuals and magazines about art and design. Does it count as hoarding if the things hoarded are really beautiful? The worth in these things is not financial (you can’t give most of this stuff away) but the memories induced in looking at his back issues of Camera Magazine and du and Photography Today are wrenching.
And books. He bought books as if they were air he needed to breathe. I think when he moved out of the house into the long-term care facility, he left around 15,000 books behind. It drove my mother crazy and she kept saying, “What am I going to do with all this stuff?” When she died at Christmas it was no longer her problem. Here’s the weird thing with books. We have invited every bookshop and library in Ottawa to buy some, and many in Toronto. Those institutions who could not afford to buy any were invited to take whatever they wanted for free. Do you know how hard it is to get rid of books? And I am not talking dog-eared Tom Clancy paperbacks. I am talking first edition G.K Chesterton and Swiss-designed books on architecture and Allen Lane vintage Penguins. Beautiful objects full of wisdom and clarity whose designs alone make you want to pick them up and live between the pages for the rest of your life. No one seems to want books anymore. We sent boxes and boxes off to charity shops in the hope that maybe they would fall into hands that would love them and read them. And still many more remain. All of us siblings would like some, but how to ship when we live in Eastern Turkey, Berlin, Upstate New York, Missoula, Montana and Toronto? And many of us have no space and live somewhat itinerant lives.
Recently some window cleaners my sister S had hired to start getting the house ready to go on the market fell in love with all the books still filling the shelves in the house. There are maybe only a few thousand left. They couldn’t believe they had discovered such riches. They spent a long time going through them and asked my sister if they could take some. “Of course,” she replied, after checking with us all. “Take them away!” Their gratitude was incredibly touching and heartening. Some of them were into philosophy and poetry. Others wanted the Irish section (with their surname Doyle, this was no surprise), and others wanted some art books and yet others, fiction and religious books. They are all practicing catholics and noticed some rosaries which I believe my sister may have given them as well. So moved were they by my father’s collection of books that they asked for a photo of him so they could remember him and feel thankful. And now they want to visit him in his home. The bookshops turned their noses up, but an extended family of Irish-Canadian window-washers are ecstatic. Nothing is ever as you predict.
But the saddest thing I found this time when I was in Ottawa were the 23 empty journals. For the past 20 years, my father talked of writing his “Book”. It had a title: “The Necessary Revolution” and it sounded brilliant. It was about how all the previous revolutions were based around technological or mechanical advancements but really the one revolution that was needed above all others was a revolution of “love”. For much of my adult life I would tell him, “Dad, sit down and write it!” We would have dinner, he would visit me in London and I would sometimes get cross hearing about how he had worked out the cover design. “That’s not down to the author, Dad! Get some chapters written,” I would say, frustration pouring from me as I could see the brilliance in him and his utter lack of discipline. And those journals which he wanted so badly to fill with his “Book” were sold at a garage sale.
On this past trip to Ottawa I did visit him. Sadly, with everything going on with the house, I only managed one visit. He was very sleepy and didn’t respond much. I was with my sister K who is also very close to him. He always said how she reminded him of his mother who by all accounts was very similar to my sister. K and I were sad that our visit was not a better one. But what is not so good from our point of view is not necessarily bad from his. Perhaps a “bad” day for an Alzheimer’s patient is exactly when they want to hear the comforting words that they are loved. Just because he couldn’t show us much doesn’t mean he wasn’t taking it in. But this was the first time I didn’t hear my name from him. Normally, even with his speech being so minimal, I would get a “Jo-jo” from him. But not this time.
So I worry about my next visit. Getting to Ottawa from my current home in Missoula is not so easy. Finding the time to leave my home life and my work can be a challenge. I wonder if I had known what I know now about leaving home at a very young age whether I would have done it. I haven’t got the answer to that one. But I do know that carving out a life far from one’s family is equal amounts liberation and sadness. But then again what life isn’t?
So the house is not empty, nor is it ready to be sold yet. My father hangs on with my sister S and the Glebe Centre providing him with a quality of care as high as anyone could ever want. Yet, there is huge tugging sadness there. The sadness of change and trying to move on with compassion, joy and intelligence while realising that we really are just dust after all.