I’ve always loved second-hand shops. As a student in the ’80s they allowed me to splurge on new clothes for under a fiver – odd paisley shirts and creaky leather jackets from Germany or France. When I became a homeowner, the markets and auction rooms drew me in, and I’d struggle home with an industrial lamp or an old school desk needing refurbishment. Recently, I picked up a used Laurel and Hardy videotape and played it for my daughters. They are both now hardcore Stan and Ollie fans, shouting with laughter at 80-year old pratfalls.
With a new owner, things are able to set forth on a new life. I like how more than one person can form a relationship with an object, a new relationship just as valid as the one its first (or second, or third) owner had with it. Recently, I yet again formed a relationship with a second-hand object, but this time it was intensely personal, not just impinging on my own private memories but amplifying them.
This time the object was a slightly wrinkled paperback called If Only, a collection of stories by Irish women writers published in 1997, just after divorce had been legalised in this country.The first name I noticed was that of one of the editors, who I see most mornings as our paths cross during the school run. So that was the first flash of recognition, the first link in a relationship with the book. The second was seeing my aunt’s name among the list of writers. She has published a novel and several stories, but I knew that this was one I hadn’t read before.
A writer’s family members are invariably curious as to whether a story’s details or characters are drawn from real life; whether intimate events or close relations will be thinly disguised by fiction. I was no different as I began to read the story, ‘Dwelling Below the Skies’. What I wasn’t expecting was to find in my aunt’s words, a picture I had already created myself, a picture that formed part of my own story.
The piece starts with a narrator’s intimate recollection of meeting a former lover, now one half of a gay couple. Her line of thought then moves to her mother, whose own non-conformist nature led her, a Northern Unitarian, to marry a Southern Catholic, whereupon she was effectively disowned by her family. This, in reality, is the story of my grandmother’s life. Reading on, I came to an unveiled description of a trip my mother and aunts made with my grandmother in her old age to trace her roots in County Down – roots that had been all but sheared off by her marriage to my grandfather.
I had joined them on part of that trip, the day my grandmother visited her old boarding school, now in ruins, and the Quaker meeting-house nearby which she had attended weekly. As she sat in quietly in a pew, I carefully took her photograph, struck by her stillness and the serenity of her expression. It is one of my favourite photographs of her.
Now, almost 20 years later, in a yellowing book, I read with amazement a minute description of the very moment I took that photograph. It is as if the words were written to describe the picture, or, conversely, as if the picture was taken to perfectly illustrate the words. Yet the two have existed, until now, in completely separate worlds.
The interior was a square timber-boarded room. At the rear ran a small gallery, lit by sunlight shining through the narrow windows. A smell of damp and old polish clung to the rows of pews and on the lectern lay an open Bible. There was little else. Nothing to relieve the severity of contemplations. Yet the tongued and grooved boards amid the white-washed walls gave the Meeting House a plain, homely quality.
“I always sat here…” my mother said. The expression on her face was serene as she sat down. Any pain or grief was washed out by the sunlight falling across her skin. Only the joy of remembrance remained. It was easy to imagine the rows of pews filled with children. I could hear the murmur of their voices drifting through the still air.
I can recall every detail of that moment; the light on her frail head; a hair snagged in the collar of her coat; her patent leather handbag slouched against the pew-end. Up through the layers of experience comes an explanation of sorts. What discovery was I making? The wellspring of existence? The disclosure of a Godly hand in the world?
Hardly. That is too simplistic a version of the truth. Full of contradictions I have stumbled through life, swaying this way and that, under a burdensome, mongrel inheritance, You need to know where you are coming from, the proverb says, to know where you are going, but it is all a matter of guesswork in the end. When I see where the quarrel ends I will know my destination. In the meantime there are flashes of light; pinpoints in the dark to guide me through. Out of nowhere enlightenment comes, clothed in joyfulness and then, in the next breath, it is extinguished.
I don’t know much. All I know is that there was a space for me among those phantom children. In that holy place, delineated by the absence of things, for a moment I belonged.
By the end of this passage the narrator has found a sense of belonging that has eluded her so far in her life, a sense of her place in the world being better defined than before. And so I return to the idea of belonging and of owning. We own objects – they belong to us – then they are gone. Sometimes, they will go on to belong again, to find their new owner, just as my aunt’s words and my photograph have found each other after all this time.
Kate Horgan is a photographer and picture editor who also works occasionally in a second-hand bookshop. You can follow her on Twitter at @katehorgan and her website is www.katehorgan.ie.
Passage from ‘Dwelling Below the Skies’ by Liz McManus from If Only (Poolbeg, 1997).