In the corner of the living room is a china cabinet. It's made of some kind of blond wood, ash I think, with a curved, leadlighted glass front and a small brass key in the door. This cabinet is where my story of five objects begins and is itself the first object. It was part my parents' furniture when they set up home together after their marriage in 1945. There was a gate-legged dining table with four chairs, regularly re-uphostered by my mother to stay in fashion, and the seating was expanded, as the family grew to seven, by a bench where my brothers nudged and jostled each other during meals. The dining suite is long gone but I do have the round coffee table, where my mother used to place afternoon tea for her friends on a hand-embroidered tablecloth: three kinds of baking and a silver teapot.
The china cabinet may have been made by Dad's brother, who was a cabinet-maker before he joined the police. I can't tell you for sure because all those who would know are dead now. When I was a child, the cabinet held rarely-used wine glasses, the cut glass bowls which came out at Christmas time for the fruit salad and trifle, and some fancy cups and saucers, but it also held curios that spoke of my father's interest in natural history – a ghostly paper nautilus shell, some polished serviette rings of different native timbers, a powelliphanta shell as deep brown and gleaming as the serviette rings, and a weathered green kina.
The china cabinet came to me when I returned to Auckland after some time overseas. I had a husband and two small children and no money, so it was fortunate that Mum and Dad had decided to modernise their new home. The wine glasses and cut glass bowls were moved to a cupboard which was suspended from the ceiling between the kitchen and the dining-room. I don't know where the shells and curios went.
So the china cabinet is my first item. It now holds a few wine glasses (also rarely used), some chunky pottery mugs, and way more curios than my mother would have allowed.
On top of the cabinet is a tall vase, made of golden, stippled glass. When my friends Bob and Betty died I helped their daughter clear out their house. As I was leaving she picked up this vase, pulled out a handful of long-dead flowers and put it into my hands.
'I think it came from Queens,' she said.
Betty grew up in Queens College, Cambridge where her adoptive father worked. She told me how in some ways it was quite lonely as she was the only child, and in other ways very interesting, such as when the King of Greece spoke kindly to her. She showed me a photo of him on a visit to Cambridge. Betty's father was Professor Venn of Venn diagram fame. Her mother collected antiques, mostly 'slight seconds' which needed to be placed carefully with their chips and cracks to the wall - Cambridge dons were not well paid. But this vase is perfect. I treasure it in memory of my friends who I used to visit almost weekly, walking round the corner to see them in their modest 1950s house with its view of Nelson Haven and its lush garden. Sometimes I had a meal with them, sometimes just coffee, and I would bring plum jam from my trees, or apples, and we would talk and talk. I would leave with broccoli or kale or a bunch of flowers from the garden which was their joy and occupation.
They died together, some would say courageously. In their 80s, with serious health issues threatening that they would have to leave their home and garden to go to a rest home, they took their own lives.
When their daughter gave me this vase, I walked home crying.
Near the front of the cabinet, a small cluster of silverware is a shrine to members of my own family who have died: my parents' oval silver serviette rings, engraved with their names, Kay and Noel, were probably wedding presents from my grandfather, a watch-maker and jeweller. Beside them are two Christening mugs, mine and my older sister's. She died last year and this is what I took from her house at the end of a hard day's sorting.
Is it cheating to call each pair – two serviette rings, two Christening mugs – an item? They make their links to a long family story, to my growing up as the second of five children. We were contained within our parents' marriage which lasted 70 years and was ended by my father's death at the age of 91, but not ended at all in my mother's mind. Her last years were plagued by dementia which found her constantly looking for him only to realise with fresh grief that he had died. It was cruel to see.
The oldest item in the cabinet, and in fact the oldest thing I own including some fossils from the Chathams, is an ammonite from Nepal. These whorled sea creatures were fossilised and uplifted in the mountain-building which eventually gave us the Himalayas. They are prolific in certain valleys of Nepal, reminders of the ancient seabed. I bought this one for a few rupees from a street vendor because my son was intrigued. I can't give a precise age for it but the ammonites died out in the same extinction event which ended the reign of the dinosaurs, so, about 66 million years old, give or take a few million. It looks like a smooth round black rock, the size of a golf ball. Then, when you separate the two halves, there is the spiral shell of an ancient creature. To the Hindus they are a sacred representation of Vishnu.
A variety of items from Nepal keep it company – a Tibetan knife with chopsticks in its brass and wooden sheath, a dorje which represents the lightning bolt, a bell whose pure-sounding ring hangs in the air longer than you would think possible, some brass pots and bowls. These are all part of my life because the man I married, the father of my two children, is from Nepal and even though I was only briefly married, my children will always be linked to Nepal. Many of these things are gifts from their family there. I'll let the ammonite be the item that links me to those far off mountains.
Of all the things in my china cabinet, so many of which are mementos of people close to me who have died, it shows me that some things endure over unimaginable aeons of time and our lives are mere dots in the Universe.