Jeremy Clarkson, writing in the Sunday Times about the death of his Mum:
Right in the middle of all that brouhaha about sloping bridges and Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe, my mum died.
So there I was, in Russia, in the middle of a Top Gear tour, trying to organise her funeral and tell the children and sort out all the legal stuff … and I knew that if I wept, which is what I wanted to do, because I was very close to my mother, the Daily Mirror would run pictures and claim they were tears of shame. It was a gruesome time.
And I knew that when I came home the BBC would still be bleating and the reporters would still be calling, and I’d have to go to her house and start sorting through her things. And where do you start with a job like that? Where did she keep her pension details, the deeds to her house, her insurance certificates? How do you cancel a Sky subscription? Did she have any shares? Premium bonds? And how do you find out if you haven’t got a sister who’s a lawyer?
Luckily, I do have a sister who’s a lawyer, but even though she could handle the paperwork, I’d still have to go through my mum’s things, and that would be a nightmare because I’m such a sentimental old sausage I even find it difficult to throw away an empty packet of fags. I think of the fun I’ve had smoking them and the people I’ve shared them with and I want to hold on to the wrapping as a keepsake, a reminder of happy times.
So what in God’s name would it be like in my mum’s house, surrounded by everything that made it hers, except her? And there’d be all those childhood memories. At some point it would be inevitable I’d find the egg cup I’d used every morning as a child and the cereal bowl with rabbits on it. That would tear my heart out.
At one stage I received a call from a middle-ranking BBC wallah saying they’d had a letter from some MPs, asking if I was going to be sacked, and I really wasn’t paying much attention because I was wondering what on earth I’d do with the mildly fire-damaged Dralon chair that my dad had bought for £4 in 1972.
Even by the standards of the time it was a truly hideous piece of furniture, and the years had not been kind to it. Any normal person would give it to charity or use it as firewood. But it was the chair my dad used to sit in. It had a cigarette burn in the arm from the time when he’d nodded off while smoking. I couldn’t possibly give it away, or burn it. And I sure as hell didn’t want it in my house. So what would I do?
There is no single thing in the house of anyone’s mother that isn’t infused with a gut-wrenching air of sentimentality. It’s not just her jewellery or her clothes. It’s the little things as well. Her kitchen scissors, her bathroom scales, her flannel. Every single thing in each and every drawer is as impossible to discard as a first teddy bear.
I would need a very big lorry to handle all the stuff I’d need to bring home. I’d also need at least two months to go through it all. And I’d need about 4,000 boxes of Kleenex.
However, here’s the thing. My mum did not die unexpectedly. She’d known for some time that the cancer was winning and had therefore had time to put her affairs in order. A job she had undertaken with some gusto.
I’d always assumed that “putting your affairs in order” meant writing a will and remembering to reclaim your lawnmower from the chap at No 42. But in the weeks since my mum’s death I’ve learnt that actually there’s a lot more to it than that.
First of all, she had left many helpful instructions about what sort of funeral she wanted. No friends. No flowers. And no mention of God or the baby Jesus. My sister and I didn’t even have to guess what music she would have liked because she’d told us: Thank You for the Music, by Abba.
All the financial stuff was in a neat box with everything clearly labelled. And she hadn’t stopped there. Before she became too weak, she’d had a massive clear-out. Pretty much everything she owned had been thrown into a skip. “It’ll save you the bother when I’m dead,” she had said.
But by far and away the best thing she did in those last few months was to sort out a lifetime of photographs, putting the ones that mattered into albums and, crucially, writing captions. So now I know that the time-faded sepia image of a stern-looking woman in a nasty hat is my great-aunt and that the blurred picture of what might be a corgi was my grandad’s dog.
Ordinarily, I’d have thrown away the endless pictures of what appear to be a building site, but thanks to my mum’s diligence, I now know it was the house in which I was born. And how it had looked when she and my dad bought it in 1957.
I don’t know how long she had worked on her downsizing and the clear-out and the organisation of her things, but it’s something we should all try to do when we know the Grim Reaper is heading our way. Because not only does it spare our loved ones from the hassle of going through every single thing we’ve ever owned but also it spares them from the grief of deciding that the horse brasses and the Lladro figurines really do have to go to the tip.
The only trouble is that there’s one thing my mum did not sort out. Back in 1971 she made my sister and me two Paddington Bears. They were the start of what became a very successful business and they were very precious, but over the years one was lost.
I maintain the sole survivor is mine. My sister insists it’s hers. And she’s the lawyer . . . so I have the cereal bowl with the rabbits on it, and the Dralon chair.