Death and the memory box

 I hope you live forever
Wasted Rita
“I have the cornflower I wore in my buttonhole to the first evening out with my first serious girlfriend in 1977 …”
– Commenter on ‘Should memory boxes be given the boot?’ by Oliver Burkeman
“The Museum comprises a series of 12 unmarked, rusted boxes offering a set of different memories of struggle in South Africa. The boxes are housed in the main exhibition space and each box is 6 meter by 6 meter and twelve meters tall. … The experience in each box is a total one. The spaces between the boxes are spaces of reflection – what Huyssen calls the twilight of memory.”
– about the Red Location Museum in Port Elizabeth, Nelson Mandela Bay, South Africa


I used to keep concert tickets and post-it notes from my mum, but now I scrap them like they’re old potato peels. I chuck birthday and Christmas cards. Crumple letters into balls. Hurl out notebooks filled with half-attempts at poems and to-do lists. Give away books I’ve read or will never read and clothes I’ve worn or should never wear again. Have unceremoniously burned all my old diaries kept from the age of eight. I even threw away the newspaper, The Dominion Post, I got on September 11, 2001, with its full-page image of the plane hitting the North Tower. 

Some things have survived. Somewhere there’s a box of letters and cards from my First Love (but reading them is painful, so why not biff them too?), some sketchbooks, treasured letters from the author Jack Lasenby whom I wrote to as a teenager, and some old postgraduate essays I was proud of. And I save emails, which is more to do with my enjoyment of filing things than with sentimentality. And in Te Kuiti, under the giant statue of the shearer, there is a time capsule buried which contains some photos and painstakingly copied diary entries I put there in the early 90s.


Oliver Burkeman’s piece a few weekends ago ‘Should memory boxes be given the boot?’ was all about the pitfalls of hoarding stuff as reminders of the events, places, and people you’ve encountered thus far. Many of us are like museum curators for our own lives, hanging onto concert tickets and hand-me-downs and hideous furniture as though blood flows through its veins. But, so the argument goes, this stuff invariably weighs you down and leads to an unhealthy preoccupation with stuff you can’t change and probably won’t even revisit to glean the wonder and joy you had planned to experience. 

“None of my acquaintances, even the most elderly, spends significant parts of their lives poring over what they’ve collected,” Burkeman writes. “Which makes it hard for my inner Jean-Paul Sartre to resist the conclusion that collecting memories is less about the memories than the collecting: a desperate effort to slow down time, or shore up a barricade against the inevitable oblivion of death.”

I see what he’s saying. Where’s the wisdom in carting around boxes full of ticket stubs and postcards and dead flowers all life long, accumulating endless bits of stuff like the kitchen plughole? Someone else will have to sort it all out when you are gone. My mum and her siblings recently had to clear out my granddad’s sheds – filled with a lifetime’s worth of tools and things in jars, chewed-out dart boards, several old cars, broken tables and chairs, huge creepy posters.


The fascinating site Letters of Note pays homage to correspondence that people, mostly famous, have kept: letters, postcards, telegrams, faxes, memos. It’s a celebration of correspondence in all its humbling, vicious, startling, heart-breaking, heart-lifting forms, from Michael Jordan to Dorothy Parker. The curator, Shaun Usher, regularly tweets pithy anecdotes to his 20,000-odd followers.

Dean Martin knocked The Beatles off the top of the charts in ’64 & telegrammed Elvis: “If you can’t handle The Beatles, I’ll do it for you.”
Unlikely penpals: Throughout 1995, Jim Carrey wrote joke-filled letters to Tupac Shakur in an effort to keep his spirits up whilst in jail.
Nick Cave was once asked by Gap to appear in an ad campaign. He responded with a letter that read: Dear Gap, I might put on a pair of your jeans if you were to pay me $1bn, but even then I would have serious reservations. Signed, Nick Cave
Whilst on her honeymoon, Dorothy Parker was contacted by her editor re work. Parker replied by telegram: “Too fucking busy, and vice versa.”

This is an online memory box that numerous people pore over. Shaun Usher’s anecdotes are retweeted en masse, and the replies are all, “FANTASTIC!!!” and “That made my day!” and “You, Shaun, are a legend.” I love reading people’s collective reactions and the discussions that are ignited from reading, for example, the enraged letter that Mark Twain wrote in 1905 to a patent medicine salesman who had tried to sell bogus medicine to Twain by way of a letter and leaflet delivered to his home. 


My parents and their friends made a funny old video with scenes of them, bearded and long-haired, taking a roadtrip, playing cricket on a beach, sword-fighting as they put up a tent. They also composed songs, The Washhouse Tapes, some of which my brother JP went on to re-interpret and re-record. But we pored over them when we were growing up and long afterwards. The tapes became living documents, as much present as past. They were markers of my parents’ friendships and creativity, and, as I got older and more self-conscious, markers of their oddness. 

When my brothers and I made “movies” (shot in the hallway and lounge of our house as if they were the darkest backwaters of New York City) these too moved into our file of the past and attained a kind of mythical status. Scenes from those movies still live vividly in my head – as do many other weird incidents and conversations of my childhood. It’s as Augusten Burroughs has put it: “I really look at my childhood as being one giant rusty tuna can that I continue to recycle in many different shapes.”

New York Public library (via book lovers never go to bed alone)


In one scene from the movie, they’re holding the Olympics on the lawn outside our house. A bearded man does a funny hopping run and then heaves a javelin into the air. The camera follows its slow, shuddery arc.

In the next shot, my father is on the ground with the javelin sticking out of his back, writhing around on the grass. My mother marches into the scene, all efficiency in an umpire’s uniform, and pulls out a measuring tape. My father tries to get her attention by writhing more vigorously. ‘Help!’ he is mouthing. It is a silent movie (with Bob Dylan’s ‘Single Twist of Fate’ recorded over top, and those few opening lines make this look like the saddest scene I’ve ever seen), so we cannot hear the cry, and our mother apparently does not hear it either. She is busy measuring the throw. The bearded javelin-thrower is pacing back and forth proudly in his knee-high socks. Eventually, my father lies still.

I play the clip over and over. Is my father dead? It looks like he is. But then he appears in the next scene, where he and the bearded man are trying to put up a tent and end up sword-fighting with poles. It’s funny that these old people have such young faces and long hair in these scenes. They look like actors, which I suppose they are.

It worries me that these scenes were filmed before I was born. It must be like watching a scene that will happen after you die. Here’s a time when you don’t exist, and nobody cares that you haven’t got there yet, or that you came and left early. They’re having the best party in the world.

About ashleighlou

Person, usually on bike
This entry was posted in Memory, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Death and the memory box

  1. Sarah Laing says:

    I love your essays. They are so lucid and poignant. Looking forward to the collection.


  2. annamarama says:

    Ashleigh! I’m in Sydney in Bradley’s bed and we are waiting for the carpet cleaner man to come and erase some memories from the carpet. There has been a lot of pawing over old happenings (especially because of the ten years and everyone remembering at the moment. Brad rang us to tell us about 9/11 but none of us answered the phone because it was five in the morning and we just assumed he was drunk. Now I think, wtf? our grandparents could have been dying, why did we not answer the phone? anyone could have been dying.) and a lot of making of new records, lists and annotations. Most of them I shall throw away.

    Brad is temporarily wearing a Camomile Concentrate Anti-Blemish Mask on his face. It had a Shakespeare quote on the packet.

    Love from us. xA.


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