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  • Writer's pictureMme Vanessa Williamson

Opening long closed rooms

Updated: Feb 11, 2021

This morning I sat in my big French chair overlooking our garden to enjoy the cool & quiet with my ritual of coffee in a blue Wedgewood mug. A FB memory was waiting for me a post & story about a special box Matt chose to bring down from way up high, from the packed dusty timeless attic. A year ago, today, we were still feeling newly arrived in France & to our new home. Living like backpackers, out of two suitcases, with vast empty rooms, almost no furniture. A huge contrast with the third floor packed to the rafters with 100 years of family stuff & clutter. There was more in the vast attics above. We had to create walkways down the corridors & into the rooms with rare glimpses of floor. Our early days were spent absorbing the shock of really being here after so many months of dreams & waiting. Each day we worked, at first slowly choosing random boxes, & bringing treasured finds down into the warm kitchen for sorting, washing, cleaning. I wondered where we would put so many things we thought of as treasures, forgetting we had a vast house. The clearing progressed, as we hired a local John 'A man with a van & days labour', he stayed for weeks. John & Matt lugged endless boxes & things down the 58 steps of the staircase to the Courtyard. Then van loads to the town rubbish dump, all pre-sorted for recycling. The men shed weight before the end of the first week. I began sorting in earnest, sitting on child’s stool in a packed room, moving boxes about like puzzle pieces, sort to go, sorted to stay. Slowly the space of the room emerged, and a path could be cleared to the filthy windows. It was a sunny warm spring day the first time the windows were pushed open. I remember the moment clearly, as the air seemed to suck into the room like a deep breath gasping at the fresh clean air. I looked back into the room from the stunning view. Almost expecting to see someone standing there. I tried the little side window, it opened without force & the room felt happy. The window views were filled with the green treetops from Place de Cheverus Gardens. From street level I was 4 stories up; so high, & in the distance I could see the rolling dairy farmland that surrounds the town. I always had dreamt of a writing desk with such a view, & here it was, I smiled I was happy.

Slowly the small collection of family photos that spilled from boxes, books under tables, in files, in the dust on the floor began to pile up. I cleared a table in the adjoining room to make space for ephemera. I found everything fascinating, way too many things my archaeologist heart though important. A story began to emerge of generations of a family, I began to recognise people in the photos, lists of names emerged on the covers of old schoolbooks, book dedications of love, documents, on the back of photos, postcards, letters. Legal documents, piles of old bills, empty envelopes, prescriptions for chemists. The table piled high as restacked & sorted same sized papers, added boxes to hold the tiny photos. Over the days we moved into the other rooms & continued. Stopping at weekend to rest, & visit charity shops to find chairs, side tables, mirrors, lamps the shopping list was endless. The sorting seemed to go on & on. Then one day when we stopped working a quiet day just to be, a special thing happened. Here is what I wrote about it at the time.


June 2018 "A visit up high to our attics this week and Matt found yet another box of precious photos, postcards and letters. They were found in a filthy shoe box sitting in a cane washing basket. Quietly waiting under newspapers. The photos of are of French family life between 1880s and 1939s. Faces of babies, weddings, WW1 Officers, to soldiers in the trenches, children and matriarchs. Some faces I know well already. Others from what I can gleen were sent from Charleville-Mézières to the relatives in the Ardennes and Mayenne. I feel a huge emotive responsibility for memories of the past lives I have in my care. The oldest photos are in near perfect condition. The 1920s photos very faded."

Letters from the 3rd floor rooms.

Thank you for reading my memories. Vanessa

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