Can you ‘Marie Kondo’ a loved one? How do you declutter painful memories?
But in sifting through all the things my little sister left behind when she committed suicide, I also found peace
My sister Tricia died by suicide five years ago. She was 46 and had lived most of her life on our farm in Lancashire, which has been in the family since my grandparents moved there in 1925.
My father, who is still a working farmer at the age of 93, lives in a new bungalow up the lane, which meant that after Tricia died the original farmhouse was uninhabited. But it was far from empty. It took us six months to pluck up the courage to begin clearing a house that contained the belongings of three generations of Simpsons.
Nowadays we’re all obsessed with tidying up. Since publication of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, “to Marie Kondo” has become a verb: the act of keeping only belongings that “spark joy” and displaying them not unlike a museum curator would. But the interior of New House Farm was very far from this ideal.
When Tricia died, she was the third generation of Simpson women living at the house to die too young. My grandmother died in childbirth in 1938. The child she gave birth to, my Aunty Marjorie, died at 21 of a digestive disorder in 1959, and now we’d lost Tricia, who had been depressed for many years. With each passing generation, belongings had been left behind that were too painful to dispose of, even if we had no use for them.
The task of dismantling the house was overwhelming. At first my older sister Elizabeth and I picked delicately through piles of papers, saving anything with Tricia’s handwriting. We gathered a stack of notebooks and diaries she had kept, dating from her 14th birthday until she died, but I couldn’t face opening them. I was too worried that I’d find page after page of black despair or, even worse, evidence that she blamed us, her family, for her deep depression.
We filled a memory box with bits of childhood jewellery, her paintings and drawings, her piano music, stacks of unlabelled photographs and greetings cards she had received: “Dear Aunty Tricia, thank you so much for the handbag ... the bangles ... the money.” “Dear Tricia, hope you get well soon.” “Dear Tricia, it’s so long since we saw you.” “Trish, we miss you.”
From under the stairs we dragged a half-made rag rug last touched by Aunty Marjorie in the 1950s. From a sealed cupboard we extracted 3D crochet patterns for hats and a Vogue pattern for evening gloves, alongside books with names like Ezra the Mormon and The Major’s Candlesticks, and my father’s mildewed Sunday school prizes: “For Stuart, for regular attendance, 1934.”
The biggest surprise was finding that Tricia had turned my childhood bedroom into a dressing room full of beautiful dresses, some still with the labels on. There were shelves of extraordinary shoes, sparkly sandals, purple slingbacks, red stilettos; scarves in every texture and colour; rows of bags. Tricia had been a horsewoman, usually to be found in jeans and a jumper. I sat and stared at all these clothes I didn’t realise she had and it hit home, again, how it was too late to ask her.
I took a black satin dress with gold lilies on it and had it altered and wore it to a wedding. I turned another dress into a jumper and a skirt into a cushion cover. Elizabeth and I did the job in frantic bursts over weekends, as we both lived miles away. Carloads of boxes went to the charity shops. It felt, at times, that we would never get to the end of it. When it came to the bigger items in the house, my father took the lead. I expected him to hire a skip, but no, he built a huge bonfire in the orchard and we ferried stuff out to it. Damp blankets and old quilts, worn-out cushions and faded velvet curtains kept the flames burning all Saturday and into Sunday.
It became addictive, watching what was in effect a funeral pyre. I would find my eyes scanning rooms for flammable materials: cracked lino, dusty dried flower arrangements, moth-eaten clothes, out they went to the bonfire. We got cavalier. I tossed a toilet bag into the flames, only to realise, too late, that it contained sealed tubes and aerosols, which exploded, sending my father diving behind the bamboo for cover.
Some things were easy to burn – the stacks of letters from the mental health services and the blister packs of medication. Other things were not easy – my husband Marcello cried when he tipped the contents of Tricia’s sock drawer into the flames.
Eventually, the house was empty, bar big furniture, and we called in a house clearance firm. Two blokes turned up in a van and told us: “Brown furniture doesn’t sell any more, it’s all Ikea now”, before refusing to take the piano. “The last piano I took, I had to drop from a crane to break up.” After a stroll around the house, they removed the walnut bedroom suite that my grandmother and grandad had brought with them in 1925. Without this enormous set of carved wardrobe, marble-topped washstand, dressing table and bedside table (with room for a bedpan), I half expected the house to float away entirely.
Two years after she died, I decided it was time to read Tricia’s diaries. I took them with me on a writing retreat and spent the first week immersed in her life. Surprisingly, this was not the traumatic experience I had dreaded. There were periods of happiness, even joy, in them. She loved music, so whenever she mentioned a song I would listen to it and it was as though she was there with me. To my relief, there was no blame for her family, and whenever I found an affectionate mention of myself, I would read it over and over again. I began work on a memoir, in which I tried to work out exactly why her story had ended as it did.
Many of Tricia’s things ended up in my Edinburgh flat, which was already full. I framed two of her self-portraits and various photographs and hung them on the wall, I slipped her china horse in among my other ornaments. I put fruit in her fruit bowl. I put the memory box inside a vintage suitcase under the window. I wear her scarf every day. I love having these things of Tricia’s, which do “spark joy” for me, or at least a memory of Tricia.
This is not how my two millennial daughters, Nina and Lara, view it, asking: “What are we supposed to do with all this when you die?” And I tell them straight: “If you don’t want it, get rid of it.” If my possessions weigh them down, they must shed them without a second thought; I can’t afford to be precious when it is someone else’s job to deal with the things I leave behind.
• Simpson is the author of When I Had a Little Sister: The Story of a Farming Family Who Never Spoke.
– © The Daily Telegraph