Hilary Fannin: A single eloquent Polaroid is the only memento I need

I’m not a hoarder. The paraphernalia of my past could fit in a manila envelope

Exactly 10 years ago, on my 50th birthday, my pal, who is a visual artist, gave me a gift of a collage she’d made for me. Using photographs and images – some drawn and painted, some gathered and reproduced – of people and places that had shaped my life, she created a compact history of half a century of living.

A landscape and seascape painter, she called the one-off piece, which is framed and hanging on my kitchen wall, a lifescape.

I’m not a hoarder. I moved around a fair bit as a child, and as a young adult was a part of countless flat-shares. Somehow, in all the moves, the paraphernalia that many of us lug around, like gastropods with homes on our backs, seemed to reduce and reduce until what was left – some snaps of a suburban 1960s childhood, a birth certificate and a handful of old letters – could be carried around in a manila envelope.

I have no memory of throwing away childhood diaries fantasising about David Cassidy, Donny Osmond or whatever other doe-eyed squeeze was decorating box-bedroom walls as I tiptoed towards adolescence. I don't have stuttering home movies of myself and my siblings running into freezing seas to remind me of clannish country holidays, if they ever happened.


I do sometimes wear my mother’s engagement ring, which she promised me

I don’t have hand-me-down quilts or embroidered tea cosies or tarnished silver teapots or stained recipe books passed down the line from mother to daughter. There are no precious brooches or drawers of lace, although I do sometimes wear my mother’s engagement ring, which she promised me and which I duly claimed when it was removed from her finger after her death.

The habit of accumulating less continued even after I found a home of my own. I didn’t keep my sons’ first shoes, and there are no baby teeth or dog-eared copybooks secreted away in boxes at the bottom of the wardrobe. I don’t have medals won in three-legged races or Easter cards decorated with fluffy yellow chickens assembled by chubby, diligent hands at small school tables.

There was, I recall, during the early years of the boom, a wild fad for family portraiture. Buying a session with a professional photographer to commemorate prosperous kinship was even more commonplace, back then, than getting in line for a Labradoodle. There seemed to be a feeling in the air that we could, as the shutter closed and we posed in casual cotton shirts, be our own celebrity families.

I see the evidence of these sessions often. Framed in hallways and glassy kitchen extensions, the photographed faces, sheepish and proud, grin away the years. Tasteful black-and-white groupings of barefoot children nestle up against blow-dried mothers and sanguine dads with arms folded and heads cocked to the side as if to say, “Yep, these are my lot, meet the crew”.

Suffice to say I never did manage that either. Maybe I was too afraid of tempting fate.

I store my memories in my head, or at least I think I do. Hopefully, it’ll be less hassle for the descendants when I snuff it. They won’t be sorting through boxes of yellowing paperwork or making the agonising decision to throw the snap of Auntie Ethel in her luminous leopardskin tankini on to the flames.

My aunt is in a floor-length tunic and scapular, with heavy beads around her waist

In the lifescape my friend reproduced a Polaroid taken on the day of my First Holy Communion in 1969, showing myself, my mother and my aunt, a nun, standing on a bridge in the grounds of the convent where my aunt lived.

My aunt is in a floor-length tunic and scapular, with heavy beads around her waist, her face barely visible under coif and wimple. My mother wears a short lime-green coat, nylons and high-heeled patent-leather shoes. I stand between them in my own veil and dress, flimsy and white and spotless.

It is enough for me, that one eloquent Polaroid. It tells the story of a time and a generation. My aunt, an intelligent, spirited woman, is suffocating under her armour and her own wary realisations. My mother, who would have been in her early 40s, looks constrained, unable as she was to break free of a marriage that hobbled and curtailed both my parents.

And the bridge in the foreground we had yet to cross was leading, perhaps, to a future or freedom they might have prospered in, but one that they would never know.

It is a lovely thing, the lifescape. I see it all the time but only occasionally really look at it. The images, few as they are, burn too deep.