Sunday Essay Ahsin Ahsin Feature

The Sunday EssaySeptember 26, 2021

The Sunday Essay: The things we keep

Sunday Essay Ahsin Ahsin Feature

Two black pearl necklaces, three generations, 15,000 miles. Christchurch writer Chessie Henry on the objects that bind us. 

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand

Original illustrations by Ahsin Ahsin

In April this year I drove in my brother’s car from Auckland to Christchurch. I had just bought the car off him, marking the end of the summer I’d taken off work to write. Although the car was technically mine, it still had scraps of my brother all through it; three blank postcards tucked down the side of the driver door, his handwriting scribbled on the back of a receipt, a broken plastic fork. I pulled the postcards out and imagined him buying them somewhere, intended messages that never got pinned down and sent. I felt comforted by his stuff; the sandy back car seats, even the fork.

On the drive I thought about New Year’s Eve when, as the minutes had slipped into January, I walked away from the party and stared up at the sky, which was cloudy and starless, and told myself that the year was over and now I was going to feel better. I breathed in and out a few times, a pointed note-to-self that this was now a definite new phase, that I was officially surfacing. “COME AND WAKE UP THE PIGLETS,” my drunk friend shouted at me from further down the paddock. She was standing on the fence and waving at me, lit up in purple from the lights we’d strung up in the trees.

I drove onto the ferry early in the morning, steaming past the slumbered hills of the Marlborough Sounds and into Picton. Later that morning in Kaikōura, I stopped off at my parents’ house to pick up some boxes of things I’d left in their shed over summer – stuff from the flat in Lyttelton I’d packed up and left five months before. No one was home, and I walked from room to room to see what was different to how I remembered; a soothing, childish ritual.

In the spare room there was a shoebox with my name on it; things that had arrived for me from my grandparents’ house in the UK. In the months since they’d died, their house – the house my dad had grown up in – had been packed up and sold. We were deep in our first year without them at that point; they’d passed away within weeks of each other during our first national lockdown in 2020. The loss felt simultaneously profound and abstract; they lived 15,000 miles away, which was how they themselves had always described the distance. I described it like that too, despite not even really knowing the true length of a mile.

When my dad was the age I am now, he got a job on a yacht that was circumnavigating – sailing around the world. The job was an escape; from London, from his studies, from the drawn-out end of a long relationship. A few months into the trip he met a guy called Andrew at a bar in the Caribbean. Andrew was also working on yachts, although at that time he was fresh out of work, and fast running out of cash. Andrew ended up joining the boat Dad was on, and they became close.

In the Gambier Islands, an archipelago in French Polynesia, Dad and Andrew met a fisherman who sold black pearls; small chrome treasures in the curved pool of their palms. Dad bought one for his mum, and Andrew one for his sister, Esther. A year later, when the trip was over, Andrew introduced my dad to Esther at a pub in Salcombe. They ended up together; eventually getting married in 1990. Years later, the pearls became a funny story that connected these two women – my mum and my granny – their matching necklaces, bought at a time before they’d ever known each other and worn in the same way; a single black pearl on a gold chain.

At the end of March, 2020 – days into Aotearoa’s first ever level four lockdown – I stood in the line for the supermarket and thought about my granny. The supermarket was one of those ones you enter via the indoor carpark, which made it all the more eerie; unnatural lighting, strips of black tape on the floor marking the distance between people. At regular intervals a voice would crackle through the loudspeaker, outlining the rules; sanitiser, masks, one at a time. My granny was dying, and the night before my brother and I had sent her a voice message, one for my uncle to play for her in the hospital. He told us he was sure she knew it was us; that she had been buoyed by our voices. She couldn’t reply, and I felt the shift moving seismically within me: that what had already been spoken and written (one hundred emails, a walk in the hills, that time we had wine at lunch and then watched Billy Elliot on TV, phone calls back and forth across 15,000 miles) would be all I could hold to encompass it.

When she died a few weeks later, my brother Rufus called me on the phone. He has Down Syndrome, and was struggling to comprehend the bigness of the situation within the bizarre context of Covid-19 – a grief with nowhere to go. “We need to do a karakia,” he told me over and over again, “we need to call Matua Brett.” I understood – he needed charged emotional energy, a feeling he connects with te ao Māori. I tried to explain that we couldn’t produce one, that it’s not our culture, however much we’ve absorbed it. He was so upset with me he hung up. Later, he sent me a video he’d filmed of himself, his own version; singing and speaking to the camera while he cried. I felt guilty and helpless, acutely aware of how inadequate it felt for him; that he felt alone in his need for ceremony. A few weeks later, we watched a small service for granny on our laptop screens, and it wasn’t enough.

The last time I saw my granny was in 2017. Mum and I flew to England to visit her, the first time we’d ever been away just the two of us for longer than a weekend. “What’s up with your pearl?” I asked Mum at the airport, as we waited in the line for security. I peered over at her from where I was dabbing the coffee I’d spilt on the clothes I was supposed to be wearing for the next 24 hours. “What do you mean?” she asked, pressing her chin to her chest as she tried to look at it, “nothing”.

“There’s something on it,” I said, “or like…it’s peeling.”

I leant over and picked up the pearl between my fingers. Its hard exterior was chipping away to reveal a grey-white plastic interior. She took the necklace off it and turned it over in her palm. “Now that I think about it…” she said, in slow disbelief, “I think it actually used to be a lot darker.” I started laughing. She’d worn the necklace for over 30 years, ever since my Uncle Andrew had given it to her. The brother she admired and envied for his unconventional life, his drive for new experiences. Although, as it now turned out, he was still enough of a tourist to spend an entire pay cheque on a plastic pearl.

When we arrived, hours later, into an upside-down timezone, foreign sky, Granny was waiting for us at the airport. We didn’t tell her about the pearls until later, sitting around in her kitchen, and when we did she was genuinely horrified. She was wearing hers, and she unclasped it for inspection. “There’s a test,” she told us, eyeing me with grave concern. “A tooth test. You rub the pearl on your teeth, and if it’s gritty, it’s real.” She ran the edge of the pearl across her front teeth, and looked at me, comically shocked. “I don’t believe it,” she said. “Smooth as silk.”

In Kaikōura, in the spare room of my parents’ house during that long drive back to Christchurch, I unpacked a shoebox of my granny’s things. Amongst them was a small ziploc bag with For Chessie written on it in ballpoint pen, her plastic black pearl enclosed inside. I put it on and sat for a while. I imagined her in the months before she died; looking at her things and mentally taking stock. Deciding what to assign meaning to, what to pass on intentionally and what to leave to chance. It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with a friend whose mother had recently died. She described the exhaustion of sorting through her mother’s things with her siblings, working out what to keep and what to move on from. All of it felt valuable, but she couldn’t realistically absorb another life full of things into her own. “But it’s her stuff,” she said to me, streaks of grief in her voice. “It’s her stuff.”

Two years ago in Tāmaki Makaurau I visited an exhibition at Objectspace called Alive by Cambodian artist Kim Hak. The project documented precious objects carried by 12 Cambodian families as they fled Phnom Penh during the period of the Khmer Rouge regime, moving through border camps, refugee centres and ultimately starting new lives in Auckland. Under extreme conditions, these families could take very few possessions; mostly what was practical, and the few treasured family items that did make the trip were painstakingly guarded, battered photographs or watches hidden from sight in everyday items like pots and pans.

The images – intensely personal objects, photographed against a bottomless black backdrop – stayed in my mind for weeks. It wasn’t just the harrowing conflict they represented, although that was heavy. It was the randomness of them, the interior smallness, the unknowable meaning they carried. Bits of a life, plucked out and carried close.

I drove the rest of the way to Christchurch wearing the fake pearl. I felt closer to my granny than I had in months, but it made me feel closer to her dying as well. I don’t know what I’d been hoping for on New Years Eve, standing in a paddock near the Mōkihinu river, willing myself to feel better. I felt more anxious then, less so now – so, to some extent, I surfaced. Like Rufus, I think I was craving ceremony; something to mark the moment in a heavy time.

Recently I read a poem by Kate Camp called ‘Waster of Three Bowls’. The poem is about objects; small figures from Camp’s childhood that she may have wanted to keep but didn’t, or were thrown away by other people (namely, her “extreme anti-sentimentalist” mother). She writes:

I am the museum and I am the tomb
I am the place with the fragments.
I am the waster of three bowls
fused together in an accident in the kiln
and I will tell you everything
everything you can know
about what they call the civilisations of the past,
by which they mean, the things
and the people who made them
and the people who kept them
and the people who threw them away.

I’m glad that my granny kept the pearl, despite its chipped edges, peeling plastic. I love that she gave in to sentimentality and named it mine; in doing so asking me to do the same. Knowing I would.

Kate Camp’s ‘Waster of Three Bowls’ appears in her 2017 collection The Internet of Things (VUP)

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