The things i'll keep forever

Woman&Home - 2010

Elaine Kingett's husband loved art, books, collecting… Ten years after his death, she experiences the pain and the pleasure his possessions have the power to conjure

Months after my husband Jerry had died, after an exhausting struggle with terminal leukaemia, I finally plucked up the courage to touch the things he'd left neatly arranged on his desk in the sitting room. A small, red plastic-covered notebook glowed like fire. I'd always dismissed it rather grumpily as containing yet more of his slightly obsessional shopping lists of obscure music and new books that he had to own.

But it was a love letter to me and to our children. A last "Hello & Goodbye" in failing script, for us to discover after he'd gone. His hopes and dreams for us all, for even the cat and the dog. Written so alone and in such despair.

"Don't hurt for too long, Elaine. I've stopped hurting now. It's time to get on."

I just crumpled into a heap. "Mum? What's the matter? Why are you crying?" my daughter Lucy, 11, asked nervously, kneeling down beside me.

"It's from Daddy."

In those early days I'd been crazy, with an almost manic need to sort things out and construct a new framework without him. Close gaps, wipe out the pain, remove the evidence and show the world I could cope. Sorry, kids, it must have been hell. Initially, I'd had no problem chucking things out – it was cathartic and I was relieved to no longer live in terror of his death, which had haunted and absorbed my every waking moment for almost four years. Only Jerry and I had known the hopelessness of his diagnosis. I gave away the majority of his clothes to male friends and packed away classic pieces for my sons. Jerry was a snappy dresser, and as the art director in an advertising agency, he adored good design and was an enthusiastic shopper. He was an avid collector. I kept a bit of this and that, donated 43 corkscrews to the local hospice and asked his male friends to help with the rest – Ric to sell the tin toys, Paul the model aeroplanes, Lloyd the guitars and saxophone.

When I downsized a year after he died, desperate to escape from a house that echoed with his loss, I roped in close friends to help sort three storeys and 16 years of family life. I went on autopilot and planned a clear-out campaign. Every weekend was taken up with visits to the local tip, hurling black bin-bags full of college work, old duvets and clammed-up paint tins into oblivion. I organised an open house sale and invited in the neighbours.

Looking back, it must have seemed like raking over his bones. But I was rolling on adrenaline that numbed my senses. How could I sit and read every letter, every postcard, I reasoned. How could I keep every toy, every playschool painting? Who needs a collection of 12 old teapots or two big-bags of fabric remnants? If I slowed down and reflected for even a second, I might never find the will to start again. I've never regretted what I gave or threw away, but the kids have told me recently that they have.

In the years that followed I kept a white canvas trunk in my bedroom. In the sunny bay window, the blanket-covered top was the dog's favourite napping spot. Inside, I kept a selection of items, a potted history, if you like, of J Kingett Esq, which was hidden from view but near to my heart. His favourite soft, grey V-necked Gap sweater that Lucy loved to cuddle him in, neatly polished brown leather penny loafers complete with shoe trees, four special American-label, button-down collar shirts in glorious coloured checks and stripes, a faded baseball cap that protected his chemotherapy-attacked scalp from the summer sun, a leather briefcase and Buzz Lightyear. The kids would spend hours emptying and packing away his treasures.

There were also totems that had significance only for me. A collection of round beach pebbles. A blue Bakelite mug with a crack in the rim. The keys to his bike lock. I sold his mountain bike but the keys were far more portentous. During various moves I also took with me a plastic crate of tangled audio/electrical cables that only Jerry knew the function of, and which achieved almost mythical significance. "Oh, chuck it," Jamie, my eldest, finally said one day. So I did.

Now, ten years later, I have regained my sanity and live with a new love. And the grief triggered unexpectedly by my late husband's possessions is greater.

Tucked away at the back of my jumpers, in a pile of "might wears" is a tattered, check Madras cotton shirt. Handmade, ripped to shreds, too small for me or anyone else. Jerry made it for me, without a pattern, when we first got together. Why do I keep it? What lightning will rend the heavens if I put it in the bin?

In my office I have a red cardboard box, patched at the seams with parcel tape. "Scary things", it says on a white label, and then underneath, "Not scary now". But who am I kidding, because this is a box of cancer diaries that I kept during three years of his treatment

and a place for all the get well cards that didn't quite work.

It took me until recently to unpack all the boxes labelled "Jerry's Books", which I'd been carrying around during two house moves and years in storage. I stacked the Sci-Fi, Charles Bukowski and Tom Wolfe on the new Ikea shelves. Brought out into the light in another man's house, it felt like adultery. As if I was inviting him to witness my infidelity. The books we collected with "Jerry" in the title still sleep in the dark, too blatantly named for me to display.

His most personal effects I still keep hidden in my office. A neat chestnut-brown leather suitcase holds his last Filofax. The diary entries record my hospital visits to him, dates of our kids' school activities, his in-patient appointments and blood test results. As the weeks passed, his writing collapses and begins to wander over the pages, searching a home. It is his writing that most attacks my heart. There are no entries after 26 July 2000.

I still have his wallet. Inside there are Lottery ticket receipts, bank cards, library cards, credit cards – all the paraphernalia of life. All expired in 2000. Five pairs of designer reading glasses, all in proper cases. Useless to anyone else but as much a part of the man I remember as the twinkle in his eye. There's a black-and-white spotted scarf that he used as a sling when his collarbone disintegrated, good-luck presents from the kids, a Swiss Army knife.

All that's no longer here is his body. Oh, how I miss this man.

I still have piles of his aircraft books, music books, style magazines. For ten years I have promised myself that I would sell them, but each one is a part of our life together and it feels like casting off a child.

When I see my beautiful daughter, now 21 and so physically like her father, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with his name from a gig he did 45 years ago, I am so proud. When my son tells me he's released his first record and the other son gains a place on a graphics degree course, I understand how people live on.

It is in sharing my life and family possessions with a new partner, in his family house, that I have had to finally face up to the true loss of my husband and my children's father. I have had to learn, painfully at times, how to celebrate his memory with happiness. And how to finally move on. Jerry wouldn't have wanted it any other way.