Two things have converged in my mind today and got me thinking about place – and home. At work, I had some dealings with a group of students who are refugees. Then, yesterday was the anniversary of my sister’s death and I thought a little about how I hold her here – in our home town.
Every year, on the anniversary of her death, I stop and let myself wander through some memories of my sister. Yesterday wasn’t a day that lent itself to happy reminiscing though. It was raining. I kept missing buses and had one of those journeys where you sit in the only vacant seat and then realise it is vacant because the man beside you smells too bad to be near. Work was busy (exam time) and I was cold. But, as I waited a few minutes for a bus to bring me up the hill at the end of the day, I let a little wave of pure sad go over me. It isn’t a painful emotion in the sense of turmoil, or confusion. There’s no bitterness, no anger, no guilt, no fear - not any more. Just the kind of sadness that brings calm tears up in your eyes before you can stop them.
I looked across the road and there was a car pulling up. For a second I allowed myself to imagine that the woman darting out of the car into the takeaway would be my sister – not as she was, but as the woman she would now be. That person waiting in the car would be waiting for her – a hug or a laugh and rushing home with a curry. Or maybe that woman jogging along with the buggy and raincovers would turn her head and smile at me and that would be her toddler kicking welly boots.
I don’t believe in an afterlife. What I do believe, and observe, is that people live on in the minds of those who loved them. Over the lives of a generation or two the memories become more distant, less intense, and eventually the person is forgotten. I like that idea – a real physical presence fading out slowly, a gradual forgetting.
Part of my remembering is to bring my sister along with me as I age. Of course, I know that she never got beyond twenty but I can allow myself some moments when I imagine her as a woman in her forties, maybe with kids, maybe not. And I imagine her here – in our town.
My brothers both live within a few minutes walk of my house – my mum across town. I was born here, as was my mum. There are parks where I’ve played, cried, kissed. The sea and the Downs keep me safe on each side. Nothing soothes me like the drag of the pebbles in the waves. When I look out from work at the sun sinking behind the trees of the Great Wood at Stanmer, I could rip apart with love for those trees. And part of that love is the sense of personal history – of belonging here, with the people I still have and the people I have lost.
Today I realised that so much, so very much, is lost to refugees. Even if they have escaped with loved ones they have lost their home – the place where they have history – where maybe they can remember their lost mum, or brother, or child. Maybe their home had become intolerable, a place of fear and oppression. But it was their home, and I realised today that to lose mine would be a loss that I would struggle to bear.