I have recently started an online writing course from Simon Fraser University on how to write a family memoir. I’m excited to be a part of this course and to improve my writing. It is a dream of mine to one day write a memoir. For our second assignment (the first was an introduction) we were asked to write about our family heirloom; an item that we think best represents or symbolizes our “family culture.” In order to get the juices flowing and come up with something, our instructor suggested this mental exercise:
Imagine your house is burning down. Assuming everyone is safe, including your animals, what do you save? It does not necessarily need to be of monetary value.
This is what I wrote:
I used to live in a house in Ottawa with my sister and my parents. It was the last time we were all living under one roof. It holds antiques and souvenirs the four of us had accumulated over years of living abroad. Whenever visitors came to our home they would describe it as “eclectic” to see a mismatch of worldly items. As a teenager, I found our house tacky and embarrassing. Before any of my friends came over I would quickly race around the house gathering a pile of things I thought were the most embarrassing. My parents would say, “hey! Where are you going with that stuffed parrot?!” as I ran downstairs stuffing it in some cabinet.
Now whenever I go to visit my mum, I love inviting my friends over. I don’t care that our house is mismatched and not arranged like a magazine. In fact, I like that we have our own little family museum. I like that every item has a story and a country it came from. During the time the family lived together we often talked about having a garage sale, yet no one was willing to start the process. I usually took the initiative, spending hours going through boxes while my sister spent all her time creating an artistic masterpiece of a sign that read “Garage Sale.” My mum would be outside tanning on a lawn chair, reading a book, hoping I would become bored and forget about the garage sale. I would come out with a box of old things and say, “ok mum, can we get rid of this? We don’t need baby clothes anymore” she’d pull her sunglasses above her head, furrow her eyebrows and say “oh can’t we do this another time? I loved those shorts on you.”
I am not an overly sentimental person; I take great pleasure in throwing out old things. Going through my closet and giving clothes away to second hand shops is one of my favorite hobbies. I remember one time when I was living in Ottawa I went overboard during a spring cleaning session and ended up throwing away important notes from classes while they were still in progress. When exams came, I was searching frantically for my notes, eventually remembering I had thrown them all out. I try to minimize as much and whenever possible. There are only a few things that hold deep sentimental value to me, my childhood photo albums and home videos are definitely high on this list. My Dad videotaped everything and my mum was the photographer. Our entire childhood was very well documented. Every now and then when I go to my house in Ottawa, I will spend hours in the basement, looking through our old photo albums.
If my house was engulfed in flames, I would save our Egyptian camel skull. Nothing symbolizes the oddities of my family and my upbringing as well as the camel skull.
Ever since I was a little girl, we have had this camel skull accompany us around the world, finally settling itself in Ottawa. When I was three and my sister was four we lived in Egypt. We spent our weekends going on road trips; sometimes to the pyramids, other times on a boat down the Nile, and occasionally driving to random locations my Dad was curious about. My Mum buckled up me and my sister in our car seats, my Dad would put on some local Egyptian music, and we’d be off. One day we were driving along a stretch of a deserted highway when my Dad noticed a camel skull on the side of the road. The skull was no longer attached to the body, covered in flies and had been sitting in the baking hot sun for some time. Most of the flesh was gone, leaving a virtually bare, intact skull. My Dad suggested we keep it. My mum was disgusted and told him to leave it alone, but my Dad insisted, loading it up in the backseat. When he brought it home he had to boil it to remove it of any extra flesh, causing the whole house smell, the stench lasting for days.
The camel skull has been an important part of the Hetherington household ever since. Every year on Halloween we would either hang it up near the entrance to our front door or leave it on the front lawn. Otherwise it stayed in the living room and always sparked conversations. “Is that a… camel skull over there?” a guest would politely ask. “Why yes it is!” my Dad would excitedly chirp in, explaining the story. I love that camel skull, because to me it perfectly symbolizes my family and our strange upbringing. It represents my Dad, and his strong desire to always do what no one else has done, to take the path less traveled. It reminds me of his sense of adventure and his tenacious curiosity. It reminds me of my mum and her ability to go along with my Dads odd wishes, yet maintain her role as nurturer and protector by knowing when to draw the line between excitement and actual danger. It symbolizes how my parents are the ying and yang forces of my life; my Dad being the one I seek when I need advice for future plans, career goals, or ideas on exciting places to travel to. He is there to encourage me to take risks, to go bungee jumping even though I have said a hundred times I don’t want to, and to always live life to the fullest. My mum is there to validate my wish to not go bungee jumping. She is my emotional support, when I am crying over a broken heart, when I feel lonely and hurt, when I am sick and just got my wisdom teeth removed, when I need advice about boyfriends and breakups. She is always there to be my emotional crutch.
My parents have such opposing personalities, but that is what made them so great at raising my sister and I. Thanks to my Dad we were raised with a life filled with adventure and excitement, a life of travel and interesting foreign experiences, and when my Dad pushed things too far my mum was there to mend and nurture. To speak up and make decisions to go back home for the holidays rather than somewhere new, to make a point of maintaining our connection to North Vancouver that could’ve easily deteriorated, to remind us of the importance of family. A lesson I am all too familiar with now.
That camel skull serves as a reminder of my past, of my upbringing, of my weird, mismatched house. I hope that one day, when (or if) I have a family of my own, that camel skull will be a part of my house, where it will sit in the living room to spark conversations. And when someone asks me if that is indeed a camel skull, I will excitedly chirp in with, “Why yes it certainly is! When I was a little girl….”