belle’s things

I am wary of posting about something so painful and personal, but feel it is important, so here goes.

A few weeks ago, my mother-in-law died. Her death was unexpected, very sudden, and very sad indeed. Belle was only 64, was looking forward to retiring, and, in fact, would have done so this week. She worked as a cleaner at a local school until the day she died.


Belle was a warm, generous, funny, and truly lovely woman.


Losing Belle is utterly awful, and especially so for her three sons.

There have been many painful moments over the past few weeks, but some of the most difficult and emotional have concerned Belle’s things. I am sure anyone who has lost someone knows exactly what I mean. In all the stuff she had around her, Belle is very vividly present and her presence in these material things makes her absence all the more powerful and terrible. She is there in the chance placing of objects all over her house — the scribbled note of train times; the pebble she kept in her handbag as a souvenir from Malta; the hyacinth now sprouting on the kitchen window sill. Every new discovery of an object in which her hands, her actions, are apparent deals another blow. And somehow it is the smallest things — the things that seem most incidental and unimportant — that are the worst of all. A swimming costume still damp in a bag in her car; a forgotten earring left on a bookshelf; a pair of gloves hastily placed in a pocket against the cold.


The shock of the materiality of Belle — of her presence in her absence — was particularly hard when preparing the outfit that she was laid out in. We selected a beautiful suit — one she had recently worn at a wedding — and I packed a case for her. Selecting her underwear, her cosmetics, the hair-rollers she referred to as her “space helmet”, I felt very much as if I was caring for her. But I would never have the opportunity to care for her again.


Belle’s was a very material life. Her job was hard and physical. At 64 she was still lugging around heavy bags of rubbish and scrubbing acres of school floors. She spent every day dealing with the stark materiality of other people’s mess. But she also liked to make things:


. . . and to make things grow


. . . and she was always a woman of style.


Yesterday, Belle’s sons and I began to sort through her lovely things. This was a task of terrible intimacy. It felt as if we were erasing Belle’s materiality, removing the her-ness of her from the rooms that she lived in. But we decided that instead of discarding all her stuff, we might make it into something new, and, in so doing, attempt to transform her loss into a material memory. So over the next few weeks, I shall be making three quilts — one for each of her sons — out of Belle’s clothes and her fabric.


Making is, of course, no sort of compensation for the material fact of Belle’s death, but I hope it will be an act of meaning and memory at least.