Daniel Ingram-Brown tells us how objects can become a treasure trove of stories
Autumn is the perfect time for reflection. As the year draws to a close, the leaves transform into a rich pageant of auburn, yellow and flame red, their energy shifting from growth to become the red carpet for the next phase of life. In the autumn the Celtic New Year begins, with bonfires lit to cleanse the old and welcome the new. It’s a time when the boundary between the spirit and physical world is thin, a time to remember what has past and look forward to what’s to come.
This year, one of the main things I’ll look back on is our family holiday to the Isle of Mull, particularly special after lockdowns and isolation. I found joy in experiencing a different environment – seeing dolphins, spotting buzzards, and being delayed by a heard of Highland cows ambling along the single-track road that runs the length of the island. Mull is a special place for me; it’s where we went on honeymoon 21 years ago. The first time we visited, the lady who owns the cottage in which we stayed left us a decorated plate as a present and we’ve been back to the same cottage every seven years since. This year’s trip was made with my wife, our teenage son, and my wife’s parents. We each returned home with a different object, a reminder of our time away: my son with a puffin soft toy; my wife with a print by a local artist; and I with a new whiskey glass from Tobermory Distillery. Objects tell stories. They say something about who we are. But, as with the many photos we take on our smart phones, we often don’t take the time to look back at them, to appreciate the stories they hold, to remember through them.
My son is adopted. He came to live with us when he was six, having had an unstable start to life. The author Jeanette Winterson, herself an adoptee, compares the experience of adoption to being given a book with the first few pages ripped out. There is a lack of memory, a lack of knowing one’s own story. She sees this as a wound, but also as an opening, a possibility to create a new story. Such experiences remind us of the importance of treasuring the memories we have. In our training to become adoptive parents, this process of understanding our own history is called ‘Life Story Work’. It was with this in mind that we created a memory box when our son moved in with us. The idea is simple. Like a photograph album for objects, anything can be added, from ferry tickets to birthday cards and letters. It’s an opportunity for parents and children to work together, a way to create something shared; a space to tell stories, recall memories and reflect on what’s important. Although it’s something that can be particularly important for adoptees, or those who have been displaced in some way, it’s something anybody can benefit from.
I used this idea of storytelling objects in my latest book, Bea’s Witch: A ghostly coming-of-age story. The main character, Beatrice, is an adoptee struggling to come to terms with her new adoptive placement. On a stormy night, the eve of her 12th birthday, she packs objects that remind her of her past and runs away, intending to burn them. But while sheltering in the local tourist park, Mother Shipton’s Cave, she encounters a stranger. She comes to believe it is the eponymous prophetess herself. The two trade stories, and slowly Bea begins to reclaim the history she was intending to burn away.
The book ends with Bea in her early twenties, about to move out of her adoptive mum’s house for the last time. She looks back at the objects she wanted to burn that night, now kept safely in her own memory box, and remembers the night she ran away…
Something did change that night, something inside me. I’m not quite sure I can put my finger on exactly what, but I know that afterwards, I was more willing to embrace a future here with Mum, perhaps because I knew that embracing it didn’t mean having to lose the past, and perhaps because I had started to understand something of Ma Shipton’s secret – that the future could be rewritten, that I could influence it, have a stake in it, that it was my story to tell.
To make a memory box, choose a box of a decent size, then paint it or decorate it with pictures. Most importantly, take your time to choose its contents. Wrap the objects and treat them as treasure, and use the opportunity to talk, share stories and listen. Add to the box as new memories are made, remembering as you do. I hope you find the process of creating your own memory box both meaningful and fun.
Daniel Ingram-Brown lives in Knaresborough with his wife and son, their bearded dragon and one-eyed cat, and enjoys theatre, live music and adventures, both on and off the page.
Bea’s Witch: a ghostly coming-of-age story, is published by Lodestone Books.