Home to bloomers and zebra paintings
Cape Town - By the 107th box, we were exhausted.
I lay on the floor with a pair of Victorian bloomers on my head; B stood on the veranda stretching his back, a white chef's hat perched on his hair. “Dude, you look like a hairy cloud,” I said, wanly raising an arm. “And you look like a tissue box,” he replied.
It seems to be the season for moving parents, although I suspect this has more to do with my own hurtling age than barometric pressure. Many of my friends are in the process of moving their parents into retirement complexes and frail care, garden cottages and old-age homes.
Some are lucky and still have both parents intact. Others have parents who no longer recognise them.
I am one of the lucky ones. My mother not only recognises me, but she also recognises every single hand towel she owns. There are 32 - a neatly folded palette of grey. They're well-travelled, having been shipped from South Africa to Scotland and then back again. My father recognised my dismay as I stuffed them into the linen cupboard next to the 23 white sheets and 39 pillow cases.
“Can't I just quietly get rid of some?” I whispered. He just grinned. Linen is my mother's thing - linen and laundry. As I unpacked, the familiar smell of the towels engulfed me: softener and spinning water; hockey bruises dabbed clean; the crisp rectangle of a bed; the hot churn of a tumble drier; the warmth of an after-school embrace; the scent of drop scones on a breakfast griddle.
I had been in two minds about helping my parents move. There was the five-hour drive, the roadworks, our dogs to sort out and the munched-up weekend. Besides, how much work would a few boxes require? I am glad I listened to my second mind: the one that's bossy, organised and surprisingly wise. The one that hissed: “Your father has a dodgy hip, your mother has muscular dystrophy and the five-hour drive can be softened with scenery and wine gums.”
When we arrived, my father was in so much pain all he could do was stroke an occasional box. My mother was holding her back. The distance to my parents is four rivers, eight fields of sheep, three stretches of beach and seven rolls of wine gums.
As we tackled the boxes, generations were revealed - not just the current one, with its hand towels and zebra paintings, lamp shades and bird books, but previous ones kept alive through things. I found the Victorian bloomers in a box of miscellaneous heirlooms. They had been my great-great grandmother's. She must have been a Cumbrian hobbit.
There was also a stained beaded purse (a great-great aunt's), a tiny china shoe that had decorated my grandmother's wedding cake, a framed photograph of a grubby coal-mine boy wearing boots and braces (a great-great grandfather), two wooden milking stools from my great-great-great grandfather's dairy farm, and a hand-embroidered eiderdown. At the bottom of a box was a squashed roll of yellowed paper, our family tree scrawled on it in mackerel-coloured ink. My relatives had names straight out of an Andy Capp comic strip: Agnes, Hilda, Enid, Flo, Archibald, Percy.
By the time we'd unpacked the last box - number 202 - we were so delirious we were doing hip hop moves to Neil Diamond. I think I ate take-away fish and chips with a teaspoon.
My father was hobbling, my mother's eyes were a funny colour but, filled with their rugs, their furniture and pictures of long-gone relatives, the once cavernous house had suddenly become theirs.
Outside, frogs bleeped, pipes gushed and the Southern Cross consecrated the sky. “You're home,” I said. “We're home,” they said.
“We're short of hand towels,” I said.
“Take some of mine,” my mother said. “I probably have far too many.”
We drove the five hours back with a boot full of discarded items. The smell of the towels filled the car and shafts of afternoon sun made Turner skies. We passed aloes and farm stalls and raptors on railings. And unlike all those times in Scotland, when I would wave goodbye to my parents at the airport and try not to cry, I gazed out of the window and grinned. This had been a good decision. I popped the last wine gum into my mouth and ruffled B's hair.
* Helen Walne is an award-winning columnist and writer based in Cape Town.