My parents are downsizing. They’re moving out of the family home to a smaller house in the village along the road from me.
Once the renovations are complete, they will be only a 20-minute stroll away from a summer evening glass of wine and a blether, which will be lovely.
They won’t have room in the new house for all the family stuff accumulated over two lifetimes, so they have been spending a great deal of time warming their hands by a tin fire-bin on the gravel outside their front door as they torch decades of archived documents, plans, bank statements, certificates and who knows what.
If I couldn’t attest to their impeccable characters, I’d say it was all highly suspicious.
One unexpected result of the big sort-out came last week when, handing over their P&J one morning, I was presented with a large polythene parcel. “This isn’t for your birthday next week,” mum smiled, which was a relief, as it didn’t feel like a Mulberry handbag or a puppy. I looked inside. It was The Erica File.
Photographs, certificates and, surprise of surprises, lots of newspaper cuttings documenting the tiny achievements of my childhood. They’d kept them all.
My table tennis triumph at the Ross-shire Brownie Mini-Olympics, the finals of the Northern Constabulary Primary Schools Quiz (we were robbed), the front row of Maryburgh Junior Gaelic Choir at the National Mod. Heavens, what an all-rounder I was!
The photographs, however, proved to be an altogether bumpier trip down memory lane. Now, I’ve seen loads of family photos before – my parents have several chunky albums which tell our life story in a succession of higgledy-piggledy snapshots of what was a wonderful childhood. But the photos in my bundle were the misfits, the duplicates, the too-large official pictures or the ones that simply didn’t make the cut.
I felt like I was viewing the out-takes of my youth. Each picture brought me straight back to the moment it had been taken, leaving me feeling sad for the little anxious girl who was smiling out at me, because I could recall exactly how she felt at the time.
Anything from babyhood up to age about 10 was fine – cute, even. Huge eyes. Hairbands. Posing in shorts and T-shirt on a magical family holiday in Mallorca. I was such a happy little girl. Probably a show-off and definitely a chatterbox, school was a breeze and home was perfect.
Things got a little rougher later on, as the pictures only served to remind me. I had a growth spurt aged 10 and a half, shooting up to a lofty five feet one and a half, where I’ve stayed ever since, towering over my schoolmates and developing in every kind of unwelcome, mortifying way. As I grew, my childhood self-assurance shrank. Adding insult, my front teeth grew in squint.
The bullies loved it all, of course.
I’d forgotten about that photograph of me in P7, sitting on the wall outside the school, being photographed for the Ross-shire Journal after I’d won some essay contest. I’m all bunched up, trying to smile, trying to be small, trying to disappear because I knew I’d suffer for this singling out when I rejoined my class.
I would take refuge at home, with chocolate, which led to years of issues. Sorry about all the KitKats, mum; that was me. Then on through secondary school…Aargh, those school photographs – fortunately none showing the impressive brace I wore on my teeth for two years but all showing that same anxious-to-please face, longing to get to Friday afternoon so she could go home and begin dreading Sunday night.
I warned mum that I’d be writing about this. To my surprise, she told me she felt the same when she looked at old photographs of her own childhood. She could remember where she was, how she felt, what was going on, which, of course, I didn’t really believe because it seems so unfathomably long ago, etched in black and white, all smocked frocks and glossy, styled hair.
But she mentioned one photograph, with her sister and her own mother, my granny, taken just before granny took ill. I could see that the emotions were all still there. And why wouldn’t they be? What have I just been saying about my own archive?
My own children won’t have this. Our photos are all on the home computer hard drive, available for whoever cares to look, which nobody really does. Photos are instant, now. Plentiful, disposable, erasable. I think it’s probably for the best.
Erica Munro is a novelist, playwright, screenwriter and freelance editor