Sunday, December 11, 2022

A Box of Memories

How do you decide what to keep and what to throw away?

Zoë Sharp


Where do you keep your memories? How do you anchor them to the framework of your life?


Those questions have been very much on my mind recently. I was looking back through some old photos and was reminded how long ago it seems that I used to make regular visits to an old friend, Andrew Neale, who lived in Somerset. Ten years ago, when he was in his late seventies, I spent some time down there, helping him pack up his house in preparation for moving into a single-storey home. He was in poor health, no longer entirely steady on his feet, and with a tremor in his hands that made labelling boxes a tiresome task, never mind actually putting stuff into them.


Andrew was a retired pilot. During his lifetime he had flown just about everything—either fixed or rotary wing—in all conditions, all over the world. The stories he told of hairy unlit night landings in the African bush, or airborne rescues on South American railway lines, would fill several books. It is one of my deepest regrets that I never managed to persuade him to commit any of it to paper.


When I needed authentic information about crashing a helicopter for Die Easy: Charlie Fox #10who else would I turn to but Andrew? After all, he’d actually crashed them and lived to tell the tale. So, as a thank-you I made him into the laidback ex-military pilot in the book.


He also explained to me the finer points of maintaining a difficult hover for book #11 in the series, Absence of Light. And when he very sadly passed away during lockdown, it was an honour to dedicate the new edition of Die Easy to him.


On a regular basis, I would travel down to Somerset during the summer so we could go to the annual Air Day at the Royal Naval Air Station at Yeovilton, close to Andrew’s home. The last Air Day was held in 2019. Sadly, this year’s proposed return was cancelled due to ‘commercial reasons’ and they have already announced there will be no event in 2023, either.


With Andrew no longer with us, and the Air Day defunct, it feels very much like the end of an era.

We must remember this... 

At the time, I wondered how I would remember the last Air Day I attended, with Andrew, five or ten years down the line. I don’t mean my impressions of the day itself, which were always of stunning skill and boundless enthusiasm; of power and speed and a kind of lethal excitement.


I meant where would I place it against events of my life that came before and after? Unless something dramatic happens in a certain year—and unfortunately dramatic often also equals traumatic—the order of things very quickly begins to blur.

All the days of our lives 

I don’t know if everyone does this in one form or another, but I have always had a mental image of the days of the week. In my mind, the days are laid out like an upper case letter ‘D’, with the weekend stacked at the left-hand side and the rest bowing out at the right. Whenever I have appointments or it’s my blog day, or whatever, this is the mental image I pin those facts to.


With years, it’s different. I have never pictured a year like the calendars you get in the front of a diary, with each month laid out in a box of days and dates. To me, the years snake backwards in single file, a day at a time, tilting as they go like one of those optical illusion paintings, so that it’s always downhill towards winter. At the moment, we’re almost at the point where the year will turn – and I mean that literally – and start heading uphill towards spring and summer. Then it will tilt again, like cresting the brow of a hill at the summer solstice, and start that downward journey into the darker end of the year.


But when someone asked me last week when was the last time I moved house, I had to check the issue date of my driving licence to know for sure. And if I can ever pin down the date of a particular trip, it’s most likely because I create an itinerary document for each trip with a list of addresses and confirmation numbers, and probably stored it somewhere on my computer.

Am I missing out on something?

I don't know. After all, I have no children who might be interested in what I did with my life, so I do not feel the need to preserve a little personal history for future generations. And having been a photographer for years I tend to take very few pictures that are not work-related, although I gradually became more snap-happy as the quality and versatility of camera phones have improved.


And yet I am fascinated by other people’s history. I recall leafing through Andrew’s albums of family photos going back before the First World War, I am enthralled by the clothing, the stern faces, the little glimpses into character that people unknowingly show when faced with a camera.


One of the boxes I labelled for him, if I remember correctly, was simply called ‘Dates and Memories’. Into it went all kinds of tickets, letters and cards. The anchor points of his life.


He put into that box a remarkable array of seemingly disconnected items, and I wonder what has become of it since. Every time I move house, my instinct is to use it as an excuse to de-clutter. But this unexpected wander along memory lane has made me pause and reflect. Did I really want to get rid of all those little aide-mémoire items? The ones that gave structure to the good times, and put the bad times into perspective?


So, how do you remember your memories? Where do you keep them? And if you only had space left in your box of memories for one more item, what would it be?


This week’s Word of the Week is anchorite, or anchoret, which means a man or woman who has isolated themselves from day-to-day life, especially for religious reasons; a recluse, from which we get anchorage, a recluse’s cell or a place to withdraw from the world.




  1. That's a heavy, thought provoking post, Zoë. One that I thank you for sharing and the memory of your friend Andrew for provoking. My memories are recorded in ways that continually surprise me. The whiff of an odor, the turn of a phrase, often bring memories long thought forgotten rushing back. But as for memories storied outside my foggy brain, I have so many squirreled away in the most pack rat of places (note the mixed animal metaphor) that I've forgotten where I put them. Yet, every so often I'll come across a long ago buried hiding/holding place and find myself returning to the past. I love those journeys, and if I only had room in my memory box for one more item, it would be for a bigger box.

    1. That's a very clever answer, Jeff! And one I much admire.

  2. our wedding and white photos from December 1963 😇
    Marcia in Michigan

  3. Wonderful post, Zoë. Being a family historian and general pack rat, I carry a lot of baggage in my wake. Fortunately, we haven't moved in 35 years, with no plans for the foreseeable future. Books, lists, boxes, lots and too many. "If I could save time in a bottle..." Having just cleaned out my dad's house this past spring, we feel a little sorry for our children. :-)

  4. I have, all of my life, kept boxes--none at all as lovely as the ones in your photo--labeled "memorabilia" and I have boxes and albums of photos. Best of all, I kept my grandmother's memorabilia, at least as much of it as I understood. Now, members of my extended family come to me searching for evidence of our families' history. I cull a box of my own every once in while, but like your precious friend Andrew, in my superannuated condition, I welcome reminders of my days gone by.