I do not remember my Grandmother ever decluttering. In fact, her home was a house of treasures. As children, my sister and I loved to explore every nook and cranny in the beautiful Victorian terrace in London. Anything that was off limits, was usually placed high up on some shelf that was frustratingly just out of our reach. This served to ignite our curiosity all the more and these unattainable prizes became our sacred chalices, teasing us in our dreams and dancing in and out of our thoughts.
Whatever item I would present to my grandmother from a shelf or cupboard, would become the protagonist of a story she had to relate. Every object had a history, people attached to it, places, and a sentiment or two. The stories were like labyrinths that could take you on a myriad of journeys depending on the questions I asked; further tales of the related places people and events would emerge until I had constructed a somewhat lifelike picture of my younger grandmother and her life in the past.
What’s this? I would frequently ask as my foraging fingers would find yet another curiosity within the tardis that was my grandmother’s handbag. This handbag was the subject of many conversations and its ability to defy physics would have had Einstein himself scratching his head. It was bottomless, and heavy. However, it contained everything that one could possibly need at any point in any emergency. Allow me to provide some examples: bottle openers, a knife (to peel an apple with, on a journey), mini screwdriver, magnifying glass, handkerchief, lipstick, comb, battery powered fan, sewing kit, spare button, plasters, germoline, pen, little notebook, a good luck champagne cork with a coin stuck in it (don’t ask?) and the list goes on.
A day at the seaside looked as far from a minimalist’s dream of slow travel as you could possibly imagine. Out came the blankets, the picnic hamper, the potato peeler, the camping stove - yes, my grandmother would sit and peel vegetables on the beach, (what chance did I have of being ‘normal’?), the sunhats, the stripey sun bleached wind breaker and of course, those painfully stylish rubber slip on shoes. (Think turquoise flippers without the ‘flipper bits’). Whilst my grandparents unpacked, set up, prepared and cooked food, we would construct castles in the sand, strategically placing shells and mother of pearl to represent ornate doorways, decorative windows and general adornment of our architectural masterpieces. After splashing around in the sea, was it cold? I don’t remember, unhindered by grown-ups slapping sun-cream on our quickly bronzing bodies, we ate.
I have much to thank my grandmother for. Even before my feet could touch the ground while sitting on a chair, one ankle hooked around the other, I recall the heartwarming moments when she would patiently lay out embroidery threads and teach me how to embroider flowers onto a tablecloth. I remember how grown up I felt when I was allowed to use her needles and an embroidery ring. I felt like a professional. I also learned to crotchet and my fumbling fingers soon got the hang of the meditative practice of weaving yarn and hook to produce a length of …. well, it was always a mat or a hairband…. in the same way that a piece of knitting was always a scarf. There was very little you couldn’t craft from the collections in my grandmother’s cupboards.
In the corner of her living room, was a curved bar, well-stocked with miniatures. These we found most exciting because they came in every shape and form. Mini bottles of blue bols topped with (rather scary) dolls heads enticed us to play with them and make up stories and tales. These games we played only occasionally and under strict supervision of course.
Pretty much everything was used or treasured and displayed. The well equipped kitchen was stocked with every nut, herb and spice you could possibly think of and my grandmother had the tools, the mills, the grinders, graters, beaters to achieve whatever gastronomical delights befitted the occasion. The typical seventies dinner parties, with their cheese and pineapple on sticks, and caviar chessboards, were a breeze to prepare in my grandmother’s kitchen. Every single thing was used … at some point.
There was no sign of decluttering or minimising or sustainability measures taking place …. or was there? Things were reused. Old vests became polishing cloths, coffee grounds used for plants, cloth bags and baskets used for shopping, vegetables bought loose and meals made from fresh ingredients; clothes were mended, shoes polished, reheeled and cared for, bottles returned to the shop for a few pennies, and spare time used for fun-filled picnics on sunny days, rather than shopping. My grandmother showed me how to forage for wild mushrooms, rosehips for syrup, and herbs for teas. She made her own candied peel, stock and cider vinegar. No part of a vegetable was ever wasted.
In her kitchen, perching on a stool on the retro patterned lino, I learnt how to make marzipan from scratch. Little apple shapes topped with candied angelica for stalk, oranges that had been rolled over a grater and topped with a clove for that finishing touch and bananas, given shape by carefully dotted lines of cocoa powder, sat enticingly on the worktop - you were desperate to eat them but … you couldn’t; you simply could not destroy these mini works of art.
Once a year, she would take out the old Polish lamb shaped cake mould from the back of a well filled baking tin cupboard, and bake the Easter lamb cake. This tradition from Poland was one that embodied a warm homecoming in my mind and to this day, evokes feelings of nostalgia every time the Easter lamb cake takes up its rightful place, in the centre of the Easter table. It embodied my Polish background; it embraced the warm blanket effect of family, togetherness and safety.
Those carefree days of dancing around the bedroom enveloped in a feather boa and draped in pearls, whilst spraying myself in perfume from a crystal atomiser was not a nostalgic cliché, but my reality. After a bath in Badedas bubbles, where I would construct bubble wings and a bubble fairy skirt, I was allowed the ultimate treat. A large teardrop shaped glass bottle filled with a thick, pink cream, scented with heaven, was lifted from the shelf above the bathtub, then measured contents poured onto my outstretched hands. This magic elixir would, I truly believed, turn me into a fairy princess. I later recognised this as Oil of Ulay cream, as it was then called. A liberal sprinkling of purely magical powder was dispensed from a pink fluffy powder puff, the handle of which was the colour of a pearl, etched with gilded edges. I spent my entire childhood harbouring and delighting in this enchanting secret that I was a fairy foundling from a mystical land, lost in this world. No-one ever found out!
Every item in grandmother’s house had a purpose, whether that was to be practically useful, adorn a side-table, or bring to life a distant treasured memory. Everything sparked an element of joy, even if that joy was the delight in her grandchild’s eyes. This was surely not an aesthetically minimalistic house, but it certainly ticked all the boxes related to minimalism where it relates to usefulness, everything having a place (my grandmother was very clean and tidy - she never lost anything) and items being mended and reused. Unnecessary items were not purchased and there was little waste.
There are many ways to minimise and create both mental and physical space, and imagining your perfect setting is an important and useful first step. There is however, no prescription and this exercise is purely subjective. It shouldn’t matter how much you like to have around you, if all that you have is being enjoyed or used. Clutter and excess can exist in the most aesthetically minimalistic home, whilst an eclectic home can easily represent a minimalist lifestyle. I am grateful that my Grandmother’s house contained so much that sparked joy and in turn, provided me with knowledge, history and a sense of placement, an anchor to which I return to if I feel lost, and a comforting mental diary of where I came from and who I am.