There’s always a nosy one in the family. The one who, if given the chance, will accept a slightly ajar cupboard door as an invitation to go snooping or just so happens to be leaning over your shoulder as you’re texting or emailing. Is that a calendar on the wall? Let's see what you're up to for the rest of the year.
In my family, that person is me, and so it wasn’t unusual to find myself sitting at my Grandad’s desk one weekend, absent-mindedly flicking through the contents. I wasn’t expecting to find anything interesting - my Grandad is 80 something and dedicates his time to the two things which are most important in his life: his wife (my Nanny, and not the kind you pay for in Beverly Hills, but the kind who instructs in no uncertain terms to never call her Grandma) and football. I can confidently guess I come third, just slightly above my brother who has always been my Nan’s favourite. They’d never admit to this favouritism, of course, but all people with siblings know the heirarchy exists.
Anyway, so there I am, looking at print outs of non-league football fixtures and clubs in counties I’ve barely even heard of, when I come across a stack of clear-case discs. Each has a sticker labelled ‘Scotland 2000’, ‘Chloe Prom’, ‘2001 Anniversary’ and so on. There are a few which just say ‘Grandchildren’. Now, I’ve been saying for years that my Grandad was the original travel vlogger. With his nineties camcorder in hand, he’d document any and every trip we ever went on, right from the point of stepping onto the very first train (at which point we’d furiously devour our lunch of ham and coleslaw sandwiches, barely having even left home) all the way through to the journey home, including accommodation tours and scenic panoramas with supporting voiceovers. Even now, he prints any photos he takes and stores them in a little book, not for any audience to see but simply because he enjoys the process.
Perhaps this is where I get it from, this penchant for documenting. It strikes me now that my Grandad’s motivation for recording and printing all of these things may have been to capture the moment before it escaped him, a sentiment I can appreciate given the swathes of notes and photos I can’t bear to delete. We share many parallels in this way. He’s a collector of everything, from old kettles to headphones to screwdrivers, never throwing anything away that could maybe one day be useful, even if it’s already broken. I do the same thing (much to Keiran’s chagrin), because a thing to me is never just a thing; it’s the history of whatever process proceeded its being, every hand that touched it, every memory lived in it. Both my Grandad and I are guilty of being oversentimental, injecting humanity into things beyond what they justify, but I like to think the thread that joins us is our desire to hold onto memory, in whatever form and however insignificant.
It will come as no surprise, then, to hear that I love rifling through old photos and videos. Even birth certificates and other non-visual documents - anything to bring on that very particular feeling of appreciating something long after its moment of creation, when you have cause to think about those first few seconds or minutes in which it felt important. When I happened upon the discs I was delighted because I knew I’d be dipping into my past family while my present family milled around the in the background, making cups of tea and complaining about the weather.
With a little file navigation, I was able to open up some of the discs and get the video to play. Nothing was labelled so the only way to view the contents of the disc was simply to watch it, and as such I toured our family history from meaningful celebrations to the sort languid summer days that all blend into one. There were holidays in Scotland and deliriously boring school plays; my then 9 year old brother unceremoniously pointing out people’s bald spots at somebody’s birthday party; my Nan in her big Deirdre Barlow sunglasses with her ginger curls. After a few minutes I called my Mum in to watch as well, knowing she’d enjoy a glimpse of us a small people again. We sat there for 2 hours, just like that, watching and remembering.
“This is making me want to cry,” I said to Mum.
I have an estranged relationship with my Dad and have done for as long as I can consciously remember, so it was sad to see him being normal and loving and present. I always say I can never see him in my mind this way, that I can only perceive him from an uncomfortable and angry place. Yet here he was, regular and nice. I felt that the loss had evolved from the absence of something that never was to the absence of something I never had the chance to truly appreciate, and I remarked to Mum on the drive home that this divided our attitude towards him. Mum sees and remembers what came before, and - very sadly - I don’t, so where I found myself questioning why she’d ever want to communicate with him, why she would ever have taken him back, why everyone was so kind to him when he’d done unkind things, I could now better understand. When you witness the goodness in someone, it’s hard to separate that from any cruelty that comes thereafter. Even more so when the cruelty is a byproduct of their own battles.
“Me too,” Mum said back, “for different reasons”.
She later explained that it was strange to see my Nan recorded at the age she’s soon to arrive at, made even more strange by the fact I too was experiencing the same thing, watching her on-screen in her late twenties as I sat there in mine. She’d already had my brother at my age and I would arrive a year later. But it wasn’t so much the inflexible passing of time that was weighing on Mum as much as it was what had filled the years since.
As I’m sure we’re all vulnerable to feeling, she wanted to have done some things differently, to have impressed upon her parents in a different way. Once again I was struck by the continuity of it all, the parallels between her self and my self, her wanting to make her Mum proud in the same way that I did her. It was strange; I felt simultaneously closer to her as a person, and further from her as my Mum. I wonder if you can ever truly know your parent and appreciate the grit of their identity without removing yourself too far from the idealisation of your child mind? Perhaps it’s better to leave a degree of separation, lest we too far break the mirage we’ve constructed for them.
Back to the home videos. So there we were, Mum and I, laughing and eye-rolling, slipping into tacit silence when presented with something sweet and long gone. To some degree, I think we were both mourning the memories yet to be made, recognising how easy it is for life to trundle on and for these moments to become simply something that happened. It’s cruel, really. We get to remember so little of the lives we lead, the breadth of our existence impossibly to recall in its entirety. There will always be something lost, a portion of life that evaporates, almost ceases to have ever been lived in the first place. Impossible as it is to avoid, I felt a funny sort of sadness for the wonderful memories I would go on to inhabit and then surrender. The best way I can think to describe the sensation is with a scene from Finding Nemo (yes, the 2003 animation). After Marlin and Dory launch themselves out of the East Australian Current, there’s a moment where they float suspended beside it, and its length stretches, unending, in both directions. Looking at these old videos with my Mum felt a bit like that; we couldn’t halt the turning of time or go back the way we came but we could slip out of the procession to consider how it had carried us.
If we’d have watched these videos together two or three years ago, I suspect they wouldn’t have impacted me in the same way, but now, in my late twenties, with ‘the big three-oh’ on the horizon, I think about time and ageing a lot. Chiefly about how little control I have over them, and how universally peculiar the experience of watching yourself grow older is. Mum has a milestone birthday coming up in a few years, too, so while I can’t speak for her, I’d hazard a confident guess that the impending date flavoured her viewing. What is it about landing in a new decade that feels more like a leap than an annual step? There’s something undeniably huge about it, an irreversible change.
I’ll be honest: I’ve not taken to the physical side of ageing very well. Call it vanity, if you will, or even naivety of the inevitable, but I hate noticing my face change. When you’re barely out of adolescence, growing older is an abstract idea, something you know will happen but is so far removed from your hedonistic reality that it doesn’t register as a ticking clock. Then one day you look in the mirror and the bags under your eyes are deeper and the lines from nose to mouth more distinct, and you don’t look old per se but you definitely look older. And it becomes quickly apparent that the wheels are turning. The current is carrying you. “You’ll never be as young as you are today”, the glib quote goes, smacked across photos of backpackers by waterfalls or people dancing on the beach with balloons. Aside from the trite attempt at inspiration, what a haunting reminder this is that time is the chauffeur and we merely the passengers. We may forget so much of the lives we have lived but it is forever imprinted in the face that looks back at us.
Look, I feel like I should state the obvious: I’m grateful to be growing older. The alternative is to be dead, so, you know, that’s not really the direction for me. But would I maintain the complexion of a 23 year old for the rest of time if I could? Absolutely. I would hold onto youth with two desperate, clammy hands, and I wouldn’t let go until the very last moment.
I feel somewhat ashamed to admit that because I know we’re supposed to embrace ageing as a gift, and I do, on a rational, logical level, but superifically, I would return my eye bags in a heartbeat. Give me those full high cheeks and a forehead smoother than a glossy apple. I’m sorry! I’m letting the girls down. But I’ll bet you’ll have noticed, too, if you’re in your late twenties or early thirties, how you used to get approached by people you didn’t want to approach you, and how that suddenly changed in your mid-twenties when you stopped looking like a baby. And I’ll bet you’ll have felt ashamed, too, to have not only noticed this, but felt sad about this, to wonder where the attention went, to wonder how different (how worse) you look. Can you imagine lamenting the loss of unwanted attention? I bet you can, and I’ll bet your logical mind will have gone to war with your instinct, trying to make sense of it.
All of this, just from some old home videos. Memories have the power to pull you out of yourself in that way, and it just so happened that these videos popped up in the crest of my anxiety about ageing. Right time, right place and all that. For a while I’ve felt that this is something I need to articulate, the parallel delight of experiencing another year against the covert disdain of time’s cosmetic effects. Sitting there with Mum, both of us cognizant of time, both of us in some ways grateful and regretful, gave me the opportunity to do so. And I wanted to express the jarring duality of considering one's existence - those great, deep, philosophical avenues we wander when presented with old memories and moments forgotten - against the banal vanity of not wanting any wrinkles. Of wanting to look like a polished marble floor so other people will think I'm pretty and have aged well.
Within this tangle of what it means to grow older, those two truths co-exist. Perhaps in a few years time I’ll revisit what I’ve written here and see it differently, but for now, it is suffice to say that growing older is both strange and wonderful and I haven’t quite wrapped my head around it yet.