My Father’s Things

by Hein B. Bjerck, Museum of Archaeology and Natural History, NTNU (Norwegian University of Science and Technology), Trondheim, Norway

“My Fathers Things” is an example of how the RuinMemory issues apply to an individual level of our relation to the recent past.

In the morning of April 5 2009 my father died, almost 86 years old. He lived alone, was in good health, and died suddenly. I suspect that he never knew what happened, and that he probably left life with less pain than when he was born.

To me, the confrontation with his silenced house was perhaps the worst moment of all. It was here, amidst his material realm, that I could see for myself that he was gone. At the same time, I realized that I had lost more than my father. My father’s home was changed into a material construction.  The human component – my dad – was the coherent force that had kept this complex integration of human-thing-relations in place as a functional whole – a “home”. In a single day the home had transformed to a ruin in the making, an initial stage of an archaeological site.

In the next days, weeks and months my two brothers and I – like sons and daughters of all times – had to cope with the material surroundings of our father and good friend. His absence accentuated the presence of his material world – and enhanced an awareness of how he was mirrored in his things.  To me, this evoked a professional interest – perhaps it was a way of getting some mental distance to the hardships of the situation. However, this semi-analytical component became a comforting companion in the process of handling it all, the first “forensic” confrontation – reading his last days and hours in the presence and arrangements of things that were frozen in his last actions, the sorting of things, the difficult decisions of what to do with it all, and the final integration of selected fragments in our own homes. In a way, the process resembled an archaeological excavation, deciding what to keep and what to throw away, what to exhibit and what to store, as we slowly dissected and subsequently destroyed the site. And all through this we were confronted by the imprints of our father – his nature, interests and peculiarities, his biography – also reflecting the times, his town and places he had been, the persons that were close to him – including ourselves. Most things we recognized and remembered, some things we had forgotten, others were new to us. Some things triggered jokes and laughter – others entailed moments of quiet sadness. Even the most absurd objects and placements were interlocked in a one hundred percent true relation to his being and actions.

When the job was done, it was painfully clear how volatile and fragile the memories of a person are. Histories and episodes are remembered for some time. Selected fragments of what once were integrated parts of a human being’s material realm are transferred to new homes – where most things are destined to a future out of place. How much of this will survive the next transfer – beyond me? How long before all of this is reduced to objects among many in the faceless conglomerate of accumulated pasts? 

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Image 4: My father’s workshop in the basement – remains of the family tailoring business “Bjerck’s konfeksjon”. If there was such thing as a Black belt in bricolage, my dad would have one. A small example is the arrangement to fix the originally adjustable lamp after the table stand was broken or missing. What looks like ropes are textile bands designed to hold the small plastic suspender hooks for curtains. Amounts of products and related materials, fabric, buttons, zippers, thread, machines, gigantic scissors, needles, pins, and tools were included in his “bricoleur base” after the closing of the business.  After retirement, he prolonged the life of many a dear piece of clothing from the town by putting in new zippers, adjustments for a bigger body, and the mending of ripped pockets.

Image 5: A pencil, demonstrating how my father’s definition of “usefulness” entailed that little was wasted. Things tended to end up in collections of objects that might become handy to solve some undefined future problem: old clothes and shoes for future dirty jobs, metal parts in a wide variety of shapes, exchanged faucets and wooden boards, pipes, hooks, nails, parts of boats that were long gone. I recognize the signs of similar accumulations in my own home. However, the pencil also reminds me of my recurrent irritation for his denial for new (unnecessary) things, for things for himself, for saving things for others or for a better time.

Image 6: A section of my father’s bookshelf. A large part of his books circles around facts, a melting pot of entertainment and education: explorers and inventors, places around the world with all their peoples, animals and landscapes, journeys and expeditions, death and survival. An inscription on the inside cover of “Among Wizards and Cannibals” – about a Swedish explorer’s journey to Indonesia – was the 1952 Christmas gift from his girlfriend, my mother to be. Is this related to the choice of the deep green rainforest designed wall paper for the living room in the house they build in 1958? Anyway, he followed this profound interest for entertaining facts into the jungle of TV-channels, where Animal Planet, Travel, and National Geographic were his favorites.

Image 7: Another recurring theme is books about skills – like these two:  handbooks of self-defense and movie making. He was a self-made expert of both. However, these things also demonstrate how times change. As for instance the valor of “amateur” – that once expressed the self-esteem of learning things, the pride of the self-made man. Today this expression is mainly a negative, failure, unprofessional – and certainly not a wise choice for a book title.


Image 8: From the Jiu-Jitsu handbook (1942). Bad guys and ugly situations prevail – but obviously, norms of how to meet this challenge have changed. At present, I do not think that this three step tackle is considered to be a healthy advice. Similar action is also suggested when a gun is pointed to someone else.  On the other hand, to remain calm and speak in low voice for hours to get out of this situation would hardly have impressed my young father and his comrades. The continuous displacement of norms and ideals and their subsequent solutions and actions – too slow to be experienced in real time, but come forward as fossils in my father’s things.

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Image 9–10: My father’s home also embraced a multitude of meetings with my own past and memories. I can still feel the thrill from the black and white photo of a man that looks mean and slightly hungry in “Among Wizards and Cannibals”, accompanied with this text: “As soon as a cannibal gets a gun in his hands, he feels like the world’s happiest person, and is fully content with his existence”.
But your professor is rather unforgiving and wants it turned in no later than the assigned time he set out on the syllabus

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