The Unknown Lady - remnants of a life in her linen


The life of an unknown lady is piled in my hallway. Decades of her life are displayed in her linen and her glassware, acquired at an auction.  As I trawl through, unwrap and inspect it all I am struck by sadness at the vulnerability of a life lived and sold this way. The love and devotion of this lady to her family is in my hands - the well-worn enamel pot, the faded aprons, the neatly folded sheet sets, the embroidered table cloths. Things she used often, things she saved specially, they are here in my house now.

When my husband said he was going to an auction to see if there might be something useful to us I had no idea he was bringing home a woman’s life. The callousness with which it was just sold! sold! sold! to the highest low bidder has affected me. I’ve been to many auctions and not felt this way. But this unknown lady speaks to me through what she left behind. Starched linen tea towels never used speak of her travels, perhaps in her retirement years - Scotland 2002, Ireland, Western Australia, Canada. Or were they gifts from her children, flown from her nest? Was she married long? Widowed early? Survived by her husband? I will never know. But I do know many things about her through the things she used.

The unknown lady’s life is utterly unremarkable. She spent it in service and devotion to those she loved, evidenced here in the acts of everyday domestic life of women of her generation. She is gone now. And this is all that is left of the washing, ironing, mending, cooking, comforting, cajoling. All those hours of work, stacked in a stranger’s hallway, streaks of sunlight playing upon the patterned china.

I’d like to think she met up regularly with her friends, completed this cross-stitched tablecloth in the company of others around a pot of tea and some scones. Perhaps she laughed, recounting small stories of small moments of family life. Perhaps she shared her dreams of adventure. Perhaps it was a joy to crotchet the pink lady in the crinoline dress sewn so carefully to a white pillow slip. I can see her, sitting in a comfy chair in the evenings watching telly with her husband.

This unknown lady’s life in linen was sold at an auction for ten dollars. It slumped in uneven towers upon a table. A job lot. Ten dollars was considered a reasonable price for one lady’s devotion. I feel humbled as I look through the floral sheets and the flannelette pillowcases I know I can’t use, fighting this immense wave of sadness that her life is over and struck by the thought that this could be me in thirty years. It’s only because the wind kept me awake all night and the loneliness of this new life sometimes curls inside my chest in a tight, knotted ball. It makes everything feel heavier.
I wonder, what my life in linen will look like when I am gone.

So, I have chosen  three of her aprons and will wear them with pride while I  make scones in the kitchen of my country house as my family come in from the cold rubbing their hands, standing in front of the kitchen stove. I will think of the unknown lady as I make new culinary efforts. What do you do with kangaroo meat ? Do you cook it long and slow or fast and hot? It would be handy to have the unknown lady here to give me that advice. 

I don’t know what else the unknown lady did with her life, whether she had a job in town, whether she was a teacher and writer like me, if she balanced work and family as I do, but as I look at the remnants of her life I will try to feel joy, focus on that, because there is a lot of love here piled up among her linen. There is gentleness in the delicate gold edging of her best glassware. It seems not just cruel but inevitable and devastating and horrible that cheerful, pastel-striped flannelette sheets which comforted the bodies of children at night should have a number stuck to them.  Is this the worth of love? 


There are also boxes of glassware and crockery, cooking utensils, sugar bowls and milk jugs. There are precious, unused items in packets, saved for a special occasion - paper serviettes in floral patterns and Christmas designs, writing sets of beautiful note paper that were never opened,  an overlocker machine with three giant spools still full. I got that for twenty dollars. Always wanted one. Feels like I cheated her.

If there’s one positive thing I can take from this experience it’s this: don’t save the beautiful paper serviettes. Don’t save the lovely writing paper. Use it. Send it. Share it. Enjoy. Because you don’t know when your life will end. You could be saving it up for a day that you  never see.

The wind has eased a bit and the rain has drifted away for now. I can hear crows and magpies outside in the sunshine, chasing each other past the window. It’s time to move on, into my own life, today, with all its problems and challenges, living in this house in this isolated place, setting up an accommodation business, writing books and blogs, caring for my family, dealing with money pressures, not having enough cupboards to put everything. These are small problems compared to someone who is homeless, compared to someone who has lost their family, their job, their home. I know I should be grateful. But some days…

As I look at the unknown lady’s complete Royal Doulton dinnerware set in perfect condition  I resolve to use it, to live my life as fully as I can and to share it with others. Because it’s not just a pile of crockery and linen that you leave behind,  it’s the memories in the minds of those who loved you. And I’m sure the unknown lady has left behind treasured memories of childhood and marriage and friendship in the minds of those who knew and loved her.

So, to honour the unknown lady I am going to don one of her aprons and bake something today.  As a child I was a tomboy and wouldn't ever dream of standing in a kitchen, wearing a pinny, baking. But we grow and change, don't we? We mold to the life we're living. And when we're gone, people may speak of us kindly, having noticed our small acts of kindness and care, may admire us for our courage and determination, may have fond memories of times they spent with us. It's up to us, really.
apple & peach pie with cinnamon, nutmeg and caraway seed

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