Saturday, 18 July 2015

Curator of the Archive

Louise was the least materialistic person that I've ever known. She wasn't particularly interested in jewellery, had a relatively modest wardrobe and was content with the most basic of electrical goods. If she treated herself it was much more likely to be on an experience, a holiday, meal or trip to the theatre, than the purchase of any kind of possession. And yet over 40 years she still accumulated a household's worth of articles, each of which have their own story to tell, their own place in Louise's life and a sentimental value attached to them that has been transformed since 23rd January.  

I suddenly find myself the keeper of all Louise's goods. I am bewildered by the way in which items which Louise possessed when we met have now become solely mine. Most of the contents of the house falls into this category as I brought little of my own into our shared life. From the bed to the sofa right down to simple kitchen utensils and crockery, everything speaks to me utterly of Louise and now seems out of place, as if it should have ceased to exist at the same time as she did. Surely, if I am preparing dinner using Louise's chopping board, knives and oven gloves she must be on her way home from work to share it with me? How can they possibly have an existence independent of her? 

Over time these unremarkable and practical items will break or wear out and even I will have to bow to the inevitable and accept the need to replace them, difficult though it will be. Of even more profound emotional significance, however, are the personal effects which fill boxes, draws, shelving and loft space; photo albums, exam certificates, girlhood scrapbooks and school reports, notebooks, drawings and paintings, books, CDs, pottery, holiday souvenirs, Louise's rather random nature collection - pine cones, conkers, dried leaves. These sacred relics are a true archive of Louise's life, a reflection of her soul and spirit.

But what am I to do with it all now? I know that if the situation was reversed Louise would have disposed of most of my possessions by this stage. But unlike her I'm a sentimentalist and hoarder even at the best of times. Now, at the worst of times, I am paralysed by the depth of meaning contained within this archive. I am solely responsible for its safekeeping and feel the weight of that task.  In many cases I don't know what was emotionally significant for Louise and what wasn't, and therefore can't risk discarding anything. For 4 1/2 years I slept with Louise in a bed covered with a well worn woollen orange and green blanket. She never spoke about its heritage. It was only when I decided I needed to wash it and saw its label that I suddenly realised this was the very same blanket brought back from her gap year in Kenya at the age of 18 and fondly recalled by her university contemporaries at her memorial service. Petrified of damaging such a precious object, something which accompanied Louise throughout her entire adult life, I still haven't got round to washing it. As if by some magical process of osmosis the significance of items like this has transferred to me. Somehow her life seems to have taken over my own. They mean more to me than my own possessions. They almost certainly mean more to me than they did to Louise. In the event of a fire or other catastrophe they would be the items that I would scrabble to save first.

Nevertheless, there is something slightly absurd about the consequences of this sentimentality. Am I to keep books I will never read, CDs I will never listen to, photos of people I never met and places I never visited simply because they were Louise's? Combined with my own items it means that I travel heavy. One person with the possessions of a couple. It will take a special woman to accept me bringing Louise's physical as well as emotional legacy into a new relationship. I should attempt some sort of rationalisation. Even if I may not be able to discard Louise's dresses surely I can get rid of her socks?  I expect I shall eventually but the emotional energy it would consume is far beyond me at present. 

Holding on to Louise's possessions outside the context of her life can sometimes jar.  She kept a photo of me by her side of the bed. It was taken when I proposed to her in several feet of snow in Berlin's Tiergarten. When she was alive its display was a sweet gesture of love. Now, when I am the sole occupant of the bedroom, it looks curiously narcissistic.

These are problems faced by generations of widow(er)s. But modern life presents an extra layer of challenge, one so new that customs and norms have barely been established; what to do with the digital legacy of your loved one?

Again, Louise's footprint was relatively light and yet still there are responsibilities and quandaries. What do I do with her Facebook page and email account? Louise wasn't a heavy user of Facebook but there will be private messages with friends, shared photos and status updates. Throwaway ephemera turned into precious fragments of life. I don't know Louise's Facebook log in details and therefore daren't open the app in my profile on my tablet because its the only place where it defaults to Louise's account and gives me access to these things. Even more significantly, her email account contains thousands of conversations over most of her adult life. In the modern day absence of letters its the single largest resource of Louise's words, moods and thoughts and the most accurate record of her activity. I have agonised before about the morality and wisdom of accessing any of the Facebook messages or emails. Those that I have not already seen were not intended for me and I am uneasy about reading them. I know that sometimes I might not like what I find, things which were written in the pain of Louise's anxiety. In any case death does not end the right to privacy.  But I need to hold open the possibility that I might find some comfort and understanding in being able to read some of these communications one day. I cannot bring myself to close the accounts. Its too painfully final. What if Louise one day needs to send an email from heaven?

Its not just Facebook. Louise keeps popping up everywhere I go online using our shared devices. Ironically I even had to log out of her Guardian user profile before commenting in my own right on Caroline Twigg's recent touching article on digital legacies. When I mentioned this one well meaning respondent explained how to clear the cookie settings to prevent it happening again. It rather missed the point. I want to be enveloped in Louise's online persona, not to delete it.

Possibly the most precious record of our relationship is our text conversations. Far more than email the exchanges provide a real flavour of our lives together and the way we interacted; how we joked, sympathised and declared our love for each other. With the assistance of recovery software I have managed to piece together the majority of our texts to each other over the last 2 years, painstakingly saved the files and printed off 600 pages in hard copy form, including the last communication that we ever had, our texts in the hours prior to Louise's death. Reading these exchanges is the closest I can get to reliving a conversation with Louise. I am grateful I had the foresight to preserve them. Shortly afterwards most of the records on my mobile phone were inadvertently wiped. For a few heartbreaking hours my phone sat in the state it was in last November, the 'most recent' text at the top of the list, from Louise, simply reading 'I'm so much looking forward to giving you a big cuddle when you get in xxxxxxxxxx'.

My phone, in fact, has been slower even than me to recognise the new reality. Since I can't bring myself to delete Louise from my contacts, and my sister shares the same name, it is constantly trying to ring her. Every time I give a voice command to call my sister its asks 'Do you mean Louise (wife) or Louise (sister)?

As the text print outs suggest, I have become obsessed with collating and backing up every digital record of Louise's existence which I can find; photos, videos, documents. I am consumed with the risk of loss, of the fragility of the digital file, of  obsolescence, incompatibility, accidental deletion, file corruption. We record and store more than any generation before us but may pass down less than any since the early days of writing. I fear fires that damage hard copies, burglaries that remove storage devices, solar flares that wipe hard drives. I am only satisfied if I have all bases covered; electronic, hard copy and remote access copies of everything. One evening last week I was horrified to realise that our official wedding photos hadn't been backed up to the cloud. I couldn't leave it until the following day in case the house burnt down overnight. I sat up until 4am tagging them and copying them to my Google Drive.

What I will eventually do with this enormous archive is open to question. Its likely that I will only ever look at a fraction of it and there are no children to pass it on to. It will die with me. But for the moment there is comfort in knowing that it will be there, as if somehow it enables part of Louise still to exist, her voice still to speak. 

Its a heavy responsibility to archive and preserve a life. Not only do I now live life for both of us, I maintain Louise's past for her too.

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