Back when I was just a kidlet, one of the highlights of those relatively carefree days was visiting Granny I. I say, “relatively carefree” because I cared a great deal about a number of things, especially the apparent eternity (otherwise known as a school term) between my stays at Granny I’s house. Iris Mary Nelson née Messenger she was, but I didn’t know that then; to me she was simply Granny Iris or Granny I. I do know, though, that many of those wonderful, wonderful hours I spent alone with her were spent looking through her photos (and making lightning cake, but that’s another story). I don’t remember if she tried to explain to me who was in the pictures; if she did, I suppose I was too young to understand or remember the significance of what she was sharing with me. Whatever the case was, they were special times. I guess that’s why, after she died, I was given a tin of documents and a photo album of hers.
The tin stayed closed for years. It came to me at a time when I seemed unable to carve any semblance of balance out of my work, or prioritise anything other than work. Some life-altering decisions saw that change, but I then found myself studying for a BCom and juggling a full time job, among other commitments. I knew that if I opened that tin I would be unleashing an obsessive distraction which would spell disaster for my studies. And so it stayed closed. It stayed closed until, like the Pandora of Greek mythology, I could bear it no longer. One semester, after I’d written exams and before I received my study material for the next semester, I opened the tin.
It’s a tin from the old Humphries Sunrise Toffee factory which used to be situated on Sunrise Circle, Cape Town. It’s not particularly big, approximately 22cm long by 14cm wide by 11cm high. Yet, I found myself instantly immersed in another world, my grandmother’s world. I gingerly lifted out a tattered-looking envelope. It had already split in two, the front separated from the back. Between the two pieces of envelope was a letter. From my grandfather to my grandmother. Written while he was in the army, less than a year after they were married. Starting with the words, “My Darling Sweetheart”. At that moment, the beauty of those words was enough. Somehow, it was enough right then for me to know that my grandfather loved my grandmother, and hold in my hands what both of them had held in theirs. I gently folded the letter back between the pieces of its envelope and placed it back in the tin, closing the lid before my tears smudged the writing penned in my grandfather’s hand… on 1 January 1945.
A Rough Inventory of Treasures
I dipped into the tin occasionally after that, but it was only in June last year, after I’d written my final BCom exam, that I allowed myself the luxury of losing myself in its contents: a marriage certificate, a baptism certificate, two certificates from the Red Cross, two abridged death certificates, about thirteen little newspaper clippings, two confirmation certificates, a MOTH certificate, four certificates of enumeration from a 1951 census, a few other personal letters in addition to the one I’d originally discovered plus some postcards, an invitation to my uncle and aunt’s wedding, a telegram, my grandfather’s volunteer ID book from the army and a couple of documents related to his estate, a letter regarding a property transfer, four poems, my grandmother’s will and a few related documents, a business card for an A. J. Western (who happened to be my parents’ marriage officer), a handful of miscellaneous businessy documents including a collection of television licence receipts, a little key whose home will likely never be found now and last but not least, a mini bookmark made by me for my grandmother. Which she kept in her tin of treasures 🙂 Isn’t that awesome?
Of course, we now know that tins are frightfully bad for preserving keepsakes, which isn’t quite as awesome, so I have mountains of archiving ahead of me to (a) digitally preserve these treasures and (b) ensure that they are moved into preservation-friendly storage. But what a privilege it is to be a custodian of that which was precious to my gran, and, in so doing, to celebrate her life and the grace that flowed through it…