I now have no-one living anchoring me to the past, but no-one anchoring me to the future either. You might think that I would feel cast adrift, lost and alone, but I don’t. Even through the stress of my mother’s last days, and of the funeral and its aftermath, I was surrounded by family, by sisters and brothers-in-law, by nieces ranging from a mere seven to a worldly thirty-six years old, by N, a cheeky and much-loved great-nephew, who at such a young age knows and understands loss himself (having lost his Dad not quite two years ago), by the husbands and partners of my nieces, and by little P (whose Dad loves N's mother). He too had lost his own mother, and I was conscious of that as he said so sweetly and sincerely, “I’m sorry for your loss.” I love them all dearly.
As we sorted through my mother’s things, I realised I was fast becoming the “Keeper of Documents.” My cousin D (also without children after loss, and an only child so no nieces or nephews either) found herself taking some family things too, because she felt they should be kept. Another cousin also without children is the family genealogist (although I am always forgetting to raise that with her). Cousin D wondered aloud,
“are the childless the Keepers of Memories because we look back, not forward?”
I thought about it, and agree that it is possible this is the reason. Perhaps we look back simply because we have the time to do so. But I prefer to think that, as keepers of memories, we’re doing it out of love and a feeling of connection, a belief that the past will matter to the future. That without the past, there is no future, even if personally, I am not going to be part of that future.
And so I took great pleasure in seeing things pass down, my littlest niece inherit the cute little rabbit figurines I remember so well from the mantelpiece when I grew up. I was thrilled to see a medal from my great-uncle go to my great-nephew. With no skin in the game, I was keen to see certain sentimental items stay together, rather than any motivation to ensure that my child wasn't missing out. But more important, I was happy to see that the family treasures and memories were valued, and would continue to be valued.
Ultimately, I prefer to think that we’re the Keepers of Memories because we know how precious they are, how easily people and memories can be lost, and that once they’re gone, they’re gone. That it’s not always about the family tree, but more about the memories and connections and links.
My cousin stayed for several days, not because we are cousins, but because she thinks of me and my two sisters as her surrogate sisters, because she loved my mother, because she has fond memories of spending time with our family during her childhood. She was there because of shared experiences, and a need to maintain and nurture those connections that have been there all our lives.
I hope that one day, one of my nieces will become a Keeper of Memories. I suspect I can guess which one, but I won’t name her and put that burden on her now. I know that when she comes to do it, when it comes naturally, it won’t be a burden – whether she has children, or not.