Sunday, 21 June 2020

Penetralia

I love the word - Thomas Hardy was fond of it too.   In his day I can just imagine how it could be used.  He lived through the First World War and so would be witness to a generation of women who became 'Maiden Ladies' or as so many called them 'Old Maids' - a generation of women unlikely to marry because their men had been killed on the battlefields of the Somme or Paschendale - and who were mostly left to a life of solitude.   Many of them had private or secret lives about which the rest of society knew nothing.   I had four such Aunts (I have written of them before) - they always loomed quite large in my life (they were my father's sisters) but of their inner thoughts and their lives I really knew absolutely nothing.   It was only after her death that I found out that Eve had given birth to a child and had it adopted - but it had died in infancy - what a secret to carry with her all her life (she lived into her eighties) her innermost thoughts must so often have dwelt on it but it was for everyone else 'behind closed doors' - not to be mentioned.   Another of the four - Nellie - had an officer boyfriend who turned out to be married.  After her death (she left her money and all her private belongings to my brother) he found a box under her bed.  In the box were all the things he had given her - pressed flowers, pretty lace-edged handkerchiefs, tiny leather bound poetry books of love poetry with relevant passages underlined.   I have them now.   I have access to a secret world, a sad world and one hidden away, impenetrable.

As a small child in the thirties and forties I remember one or two elderly (to me they seemed very old) ladies belonging to this era of forgotten maiden ladies.   One lived in a neighbouring village and on hot days in Summer we would trudge over to her cottage in the village to go to her cottage and ring a bell outside the front door.   This would bring her out through a curtain hiding the rest of her house away, to serve us with a delicious ice cream - tasted like frozen custard and probably was just that - golden yellow and divine.
What was hidden behind that curtain we never knew - we always wondered, and guessed but in the end there came a Summer when she was no longer there to serve us and I suppose about the same time Eldorado (Stop Me and Buy One) men on their bikes began to come round in Summer and we quickly forgot.

At the moment I have a couple of friends who are trying to sort out their affairs and throw away years of unnecessary bits and bobs - things which probably have great and deep meaning to them but which have no meaning at all to the next generation.   Things which, when they are gone, will be left to be sorted out otherwise.   A bag for the tip, a bag for the charity shop, trinkets for some antique dealer to sort through and decide whether it is worth trying to sell them.   Things which have meant such a lot and have such memories but not for anyone else.

Our innermost thoughts, our innermost secrets, things which, when we die, will die with us or become meaningless - just trinkets in a charity shop.   Do we all have them?   I suspect the answer is yes.   When I moved here I had a really good going over everything,making sure I packed a box each day for the charity shop. a box to take with me, a black bag for the tip.   I was so pleased with myself when I moved in - I had nothing that would need to be gone through and then speculated on.

But I can't help feeling that these things creep up on one - a saved card here, a pressed flower there, 
things which have meaning to me.   My dear grand daughter sent me a sketch of a birch tree at the beginning of lock down and with it came a tiny bunch of birch twiglets from the tree itself.   Throughout lock down I have kept those twiglets, tied with a piece of ribbon, hanging from the bookshelves.  They are meaningless to anyone else but they are symbolic of hope for the future for her and for me, part of my penetralia I suppose you could say.

33 comments:

jinxxxygirl said...

Oh Pat ... i have an awful lot of penetralia... thats a new word for me.. I do feel a little sorry for whoever has to go thru my 'stuff' when i'm gone.. But until forced i will not be disposing of any of it.. I suppose the day will come when i will be forced by unforseen circumstances.. but for now..I'am surrounded by the things that help make me... me... Old photos always fascinate me... a moment in time.. frozen.. I'm always sad to see old photos separated from their families.. I tend to purchase them when i see them at a flea market and such if not too expensive.. Hugs! deb

Ellen D. said...

I love this thoughtful post, Pat. I often wonder about the things that have been saved from generation to generation that my children will not want in the future. My sister and I talk of this and regret the many stories that have been lost to us already and that we will never be able to hand down. Old photos, documents, dishes, - just things or clutter to my kids - but family history to us. Even going forward - so many photos and communications are digital now - how will these ever be saved and passed on? You sure have got me thinking this morning! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I was just thinking about this the other day. The photos of my pets, past and present. The clock I saved for two years to purchase, the wee piece of beach coral a little neighbor brought back from Hawaii just for me.
Grandma was very sentimental. Her children found an unused plug of chewing tobacco amongst her treasures after she passed. It was my grandpa’s. He’d died 30 years earlier and she had been unable to throw the plug away. I now have it and treasure it. When I pass the executors of my estate will probably throw it away.

JayCee said...

I still have the Chinese tea service that my Dad bought for his mother when he was stationed in Hong Kong in the early 1950s. When Gran died my Dad took it back and treasured it. When he was terminally ill he kept saying that he wanted me or my sister to look after it, although she didn't really want it. It is far too fragile to use and it is in my glass fronted cabinet. I always think of him when I look at it but I know that when I am gone it will probably be thrown away.

Heather said...

What a fascinating post. I got rid of a lot of penetralia when I downsized to my little flat but have to confess to collecting a few more pieces since then.
I had two great aunts who were sisters. They were probably in their sixties when I became aware of them and both lost suitors to the First World War. They lived together for the rest of their lives. I loved visiting them and although they lived quite simply, everything was done 'nicely'. So sad to think just how many more lives were ruined apart from those who died or were injured during that war.

Terra said...

This is a wonderful post, reminding me of the old maids who lost their loves in WWI, and of secrets they must all have had. I like your twigs hanging and how they have meaning only to you. I am decluttering too, but have many objects that have meaning only to me. Some family heirlooms my sons know the story of and I think they will keep them when my time comes!

Salty Pumpkin Studio said...

A thoughtful and so true post, thank you.
I have too much junk drawer, box, shelf bits of things that feel like old friends.
Most of it will be gone before I am. The rest, I like to think will be looked at fondly as they see how their mother lived, and, not that unfamiliar to what they have in their own lives.

Derek Faulkner said...

Wow, what a great post and one that could only be written by somebody of your age, and memories of past life and lives. I have loads of that kind of stuff, much of it sitting on bookshelves and the like for many years and always there when I glance across the room in a moment of melancholia, to remind me of a point in time, something just like your granddaughter's little note and twigs.

Sue in Suffolk said...

What a lovely post - thank you Pat for sharing your memories

Rachel Phillips said...

All I could think when I read the heading was that it was a rude word. However, I know what you mean. My mum had two maiden cousins who we used to visit when I was a child. They appeared to be old but in fact were probably not much older than my mother, and they served tinned peaches and Carnation milk with a round of bread and butter and their house had a peculiar smell and they used to spit when they talked. I hated having to go there.

Anna said...

Lovely post-I've been reading your blog for a while but have not commented before. Have been thinking about personal possessions in relation to my husband who died last year. He collected many things, important and personal to him, but in some cases have little meaning to me. Trying to decide what to keep is difficult-our children are young and want to keep things to remind them of their dad in the future but we can't keep everything. Can't quite bring myself to start yet.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Yes Rachel - I do know what you mean - the word does have rather rude overtones (or maybe undertones, not sure which).

But it does seem that we are all to some degree guilty of saving up things for others to dispose of - and of course I memories die with us. Others will never know of things we remember that we do not with to pass on.

Bonnie said...

Dear Pat, this is a beautiful post and it reaches my heart in a special way. I have so many items passed on to me that are precious to me but mean nothing to my children. It is sad and disturbing to me to think of letting some of these items go as I feel almost like I would be betraying my ancestors. But the young people today seem to have no interest in these memory filled trinkets from the past. I know I have to come to terms with them and I dread it.

Thank you for this lovely piece of writing.

Ruth said...

I've always been saddened at all that leaves with a person when they die. I think of my mother every day since her death at 97 in 2013. I know much about her life from the stories she told me and my siblings, but there's so much I never asked. All that I remember about her will die with me, and when my sister dies, Mom will be gone out of all memory. Record your memories, Pat!! (I love reading your stories, and thank you for sharing them.)

Psalm 103:15 As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
[16] for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.

John "By Stargoose And Hanglands" said...

I'm ashamed to report that I had to throw out a lot of my mother's mementos when I cleared her house after her death. I kept a few things though that were also of importance to me. I remember some of those old ladies living in the village where I was born. It was interesting how, in a society where everyone knew everything about everyone, there were certain things which people never mentioned - very different from today.

George said...

A beautiful, well-written post, Pat. Though I have had a love affair with words for my entire life, I've never come across "penetralia." I have a feeling that it's been used more in the UK than in my country. As for the sentiment behind this posting, I was quite moved by one particular sentence: "Our innermost thoughts, our innermost secrets, things which, when we die, will die with us or become meaningless — just trinkets in a charity shop." At seventy-seven, I've thought about this a great deal lately. I used to think that my children and grandchildren would eventually be interested in having or knowing about things of value to me. I now realize, however, that this is little more than vanity and folly on my part. Live moves on after our deaths, and those who follow will be preoccupied with their respective journeys, not ours. That said, the wonderful memories remain with us until our final breaths, giving us — if we are fortunate — the comfortable joy of lives well-lived.

Pipistrello said...

What a beautiful post. And so much to ponder over. It should be so easy to leave life tidily, as it was the case for countless generations before, when the entire contents of one life could be left on a shelf or carried about in a suitcase even in more recent times, and probably the clothes you were standing in were all you had for millennia before that. But these days ... we accumulate so much and apportion sentiment to so much of it - and not to mention the reams of online material we hang on to, who will go through the photos and emails and documents there? It's another burden to consider for the sanity and patience of those left to tidy up after us. But our inner lives will prove to be just as mysterious as it's always ever been for those who came before.

Gail, northern California said...

I love it when you write stories like this.

Red said...

Meaningful post for those of us who are trying to organize things for the end of our lives. I have not moved since 1969...same house. When you move you tend to discard things rather than move them. after that it gets messy.

Sue said...

There is a wonderful poem by Donald Hall that I came across on another blog (Letters from a Hill Farm):

When I walk in my house I see pictures,
bought long ago,framed and hanging
- de Kooning, Arp, Laurencin, Henry Moore -
that I've cherished and stared at for years,
yet my eyes keep returning to the masters
of the trivial: a white stone perfectly round,
tiny lead models of baseball players, a cowbell,
a broken great-grandmother's rocker'
a dead dog's toy - valueless, unforgettable
detritus that my children will throw away
as I did my mother's souvenirs of trips
with my dead father, kodaks of kittens,
and bundles of cards from her mother Kate.



THE ONLY TRUE HACKER IN THE WORLD ® said...
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Librarian said...

This was a thoughtful Monday morning read for me, thank you, Pat.
Of course like almost everyone else I, too, have items that are important only for myself and nobody else, but I do not like clutter and so the amount of such things is rather limited in my flat.
When my grandmother died 11 years after my grandfather and we had to clear the house, I came across a few things that I had completely forgotten about, but which reminded me so much of my very happy childhood - good part of which was spent at that house - that they moved me to tears instantly. I have kept one of those items, just the one.

Librarian said...

Me again - I meant to add something for Anna to my comment but hit "publish" too early.
Anna, when my husband died I gave some of his most personal things to his closest friends, kept a few (and still do - I have a "Steve's drawer" in my desk) and let his sisters choose for themselves what they would like to keep as mementos of their little brother who died far too early. Those things I could not do anything with, such as his amateur radio equipment, electric guitar etc., I sold.

Bovey Belle said...

How wonderful to have inherited these "bit and bobs" from your family's past. My husband's family had a maiden aunt - we were told nothing bar she fell in love with the wrong man (so I will assume he was married). She ended up with a breakdown and electric shock therapy . . .

In my ex-husband's family, his gran's sister had a baby out of wedlock and was incarcerated in Herrison Hospital for around 40 years (moral degeneracy). Like your aunt, the little one died in infancy - I am assuming that Doth had a breakdown too . . .

Such sad times.

I have way too much "stuff" and have told my offspring to keep what they want and put the rest in auction - it will find someone out there who values it. I have "other people's photos" too, found at auction or car boot sale, that I have taken pity on. It always seems a shame that the family didn't want them, or the person they belonged with had no living relatives left.

Virginia said...

What a wonderful word "penetralia" - I had to look it up.

So many women were in the position of your aunts. I had two maiden Great-aunts, First Would War aged singles, and a beloved aunt who I know 'never met the right man' after the Second World War (the one she did meet turned out to have been married, and she, as a devout Roman Catholic, never spoke to him after she found that out). Society ripped apart, and such isolation for women in their much more confined roles.

Thought provoking, as ever Pat! Thank you.

Mary said...

I have a pair of my dear mother's gloves and a lace trimmed hankie wrapped in tissue paper and tucked in a drawer. . . . . plus dozens of other little precious things belonging to both her and her mother, my dear grandma. These were women who loved me, formed me, and whom I still miss so much despite being of advanced age myself now.
Nobody will keep all those things when I'm gone. The majority of young people today - and now it's so obvious and heartbreaking - are not interested in history at all!

What you have written here is so lovely though sad, and brings back many memories. Thank you Pat.

A Smaller Life said...

What a lovely post, and a brilliant read to start the week with AND a new word to add to my vocabulary.

I COULD have had some maiden aunts in the family, but of my Nana's five sisters, one died in her 30's and the rest, including my Nana all found husbands, a couple of them later in life so they were spared the Maiden Aunt or Old Maid title, no doubt to their great relief.

One of the sisters had a child out of wedlock but then during the war fell in love with a GI who didn't mind in the slightest, and after the war he sent for her to join him in America.

My Mum and Dad, inherited all of the 'penetralia' from three of the sisters as each died across the span of around 10 years and had a lot of sorting out of legalities etc to do.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Thank you all. I am pleased to have stirred up a lot of memories for you all - it does us good sometimes to think along these lines . Have a nice day.

elf said...

Dear Weaver,
Thank you for this post!
I hope you are well and comfortable today, with friends to talk with about your memories and yes, even plans.

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VC said...

Weirdly I was researching my husband's family earlier and discovered the birth during WW1 of an aunt he knew nothing about and who had never been mentioned. She was the first born and I suspect went on to be adopted as I can find no further records of her. My husband had met many and could name all of his numerous aunts and uncles but he knew nothing of this one so we think she was never mentioned and as all the other children came after they would have no knowledge or memory of her. It's got me wondering what happened to her and to hope her life was a good one.