There are two suitcases under my bed. One belonged to my maternal grandmother, Elisabeth. It’s an old Revelation case from the 1940s/50s, with luggage labels and her initials printed on the front. The other was the suitcase my mother, Helen, took into the hospice two weeks before she died.
A few days ago my husband said he thought I should move Elisabeth’s case out from under the bed, that it was somehow keeping me in her shadow. I tried to explain how actually it was a source of comfort and strength to have it there beneath me. Perhaps he’s right: perhaps having this literal baggage beneath me as I sleep isn’t healthy. But we’ve got history, that suitcase and I.
In March of this year my eleven year-old son carried that case through the dark, drizzly streets of our hometown. We were coming home from the local book launch for my first book, Elisabeth’s Lists, which tells the story of my grandmother’s extraordinary life as a diplomat’s daughter and wife, through a book of handwritten lists she left behind. I took her suitcase to the launch, along with an exquisite vintage Dior dress that also belonged to Elisabeth. I needed her physical presence alongside me, as I had felt it so often while working on the book. We piled up copies of the book in the case, and then when it was empty and we were walking home my son offered to carry it. He said he could imagine Elisabeth carrying it through the streets of wartime London and all the exotic places she lived. Yes, I thought, Yes.
Elisabeth lived a nomadic life, so the suitcase feels a fitting object through which to refract her story. She was the daughter of a senior diplomat and lived in Persia, China and Belgium as a girl, sailing on steamships filled with falcons belonging to the sheik of Bahrein, watching trains of camels stride past at dawn in the mountains of the Middle East, darting through souks in search of silk, rolling up carpets and dancing through the whisky-fuelled night, being shot in the head by Chinese bandits and wondering why sometimes everything felt utterly meaningless. She married a charming young diplomat and continued her rootless life, veering between the glamour and glitz of Foreign Office cocktail parties and the drudge of wartime domesticity.
My mother was born in Brazil in 1947, high in the sun-baked mountains during a typhoid outbreak. By the time she was three she had crossed the Atlantic three times. I found traces of Elisabeth’s habitual displacement in my mother: her unwillingness to really settle in one place, her love of travel and the freedom of disappearing into a place where no-one knows you. And I noticed this in myself too, manifesting in a skittishness and inability to stay still, to create a proper home, until I had a family of my own.
Elisabeth was a prolific list-maker. Her book of lists is full of inventories of linen, china and other household items she had to organise, store or ship overseas at short notice. There are lists of Christmas presents, of the eggs her chickens laid over one year during the war, and of winter clothes stored in suitcases - probably the one under my bed. Between the lines of these lists I begin to build a picture of my grandmother. And I begin to understand what it must have been like for my mother to lose her mother so young, and to spend her life searching for her in different ways. My research became the tentative pages of a book as I realised that Elisabeth’s story was at once extraordinary and universal. I was hooked.
It was a strange and beautiful process writing my book. Over five years of sifting through boxes of fragile letters, marbled journals and faded photographs I often lost track of time and reality, wondering where I was and why there were modern cars and mobile phones when I looked up from the pages. I never met Elisabeth - she died from cancer when my mother was just nine - but I came to know her as well as I can imagine knowing anyone. I traced the lines of her diaries containing her most intimate thoughts, I imagined her sitting up in bed propped on plump pillows making lists to dispel the descending depression, I stepped into her silk cocktail dress and stroked the pearls that star the fabric, I cooked the carrot marmalade from a recipe in a newspaper cutting she collected, I felt her excitement as she prepared for the birth of her first baby, and I shivered at her horror as she walked through her brother’s flat sorting out his belongings after his suicide.
As the boundaries between my world and Elisabeth’s became blurred and I felt myself slipping further into her story, my mother became terminally ill with lung cancer. My attempt to reconstruct her mother’s life through these precious fragments became more urgent. I somehow felt that if I could piece Elisabeth back together then I could also save my mother. The three of us were connected by a thread and although my mother was unravelling I knew that I just had to hold on. I read about how Joan Didion couldn’t put away her late husband’s shoes after his death because she felt he might come back and need them. We play these tricks on ourselves to make an unbearable absence more manageable. For me, reconstructing the life of a woman I never met became a way for me to hold together the woman who had brought me into the world.
I wrote on, and my mother lived with her diagnosis with grace and courage for four years. She read the manuscript of what was yet to be an actual book and said it was the best present anyone could have given her. But it didn’t save her. One hot summer - 2016, the year the world lost its head - she became unable to swallow. My brother, sister and I took turns visiting her, stocking up on cardboard bowls to catch the foamy vomit that came after the footsteps that came after the attempts at eating. We washed her hair and picked raspberries from the garden. We sat downstairs while she grew thinner and more frail upstairs.
And so the second suitcase. She had wanted to die at home but she was suffering, and it was too difficult for my stepfather to bear. My sister emptied her own wheelie suitcase and we filled it with nighties, face wash, hand cream, a hairbrush, a toothbrush, Little Dorrit, a few CDs and some clothes. It went with my mother to the hospice, but only the suitcase came home.
Unpacking mum's case after her death was unfathomable. How could the person whose hair was snagged on the bristles of this brush suddenly have disappeared? How could the feet that had etched their own individual curves into this old pair of sandals no longer exist? Why did the suitcase of things still exist when she was gone? The brightness of its blue piping seemed an insult.
The last proper conversation I had with my mother was about Elisabeth. In those final moments together I felt Elisabeth there, as I had done when I walked along a Surrey lane in search of a house she had lived in, as I had done when I was close to despair and giving up writing. At times, working on my book, I felt that I wasn’t writing it at all, that another hand was guiding mine. When I was stuck, blocked and unsure, trying to write a chapter about Elisabeth’s time in Beirut, my mother posted me a book containing a few pages of Elisabeth’s writing. It was the beginning of a novel, suggested as a way to distract Elisabeth from her illness and started just two weeks before she died. It was about a female ambassador moving to Beirut. Goose-pimpled and teary-eyed I used Elisabeth’s words, and carried on writing until the book was finished. She couldn’t finish hers; I had no excuse not to finish mine.
My mother’s death was peaceful and timeless (as in it exists out of time and time had become elastic, shapeless) and I am permanently changed by it. Poet Christopher Reid captures the simplicity and enormity of watching someone die: ‘Sparse breath/ Then none/ And it was done.’
Later, my siblings and I went through her clothes and each chose a few things to keep. I stored the things I’d chosen in the wheelie suitcase and brought it home, a strange talisman that I still can’t bring myself to look at much. But when I do open it the smell of her is released and I shut it quickly so as not to lose the scent. A woman of a similar age to my mother walked past me recently and something about her t-shirt instantly triggered a memory of folding a soft cotton t-shirt of my mother’s into this case. Strange how grief comes at you sideways.
These two cases contain memories and stories; they are my portal into the past and a way to deal with the difficulties of the present. The three of us are connected by their presence, as well as by invisible threads and wounds and loves and ancient patterns and a line of women going back longer than I know. One day I might move the suitcases up into the attic.
But not yet.