Part of my life, as survivor of a chain of dead people, is custodian of family flotsam loaded with memories that become more fragile and dog-eared with each house shift and earthquake.

It is not altogether comfortable being the final destination of other people's things; china ornaments, bits of jewellery of no great value, old books, and especially first day covers, expressing the long-ago hopes of the wonderful day when they'd be worth huge sums of money and we'd all be rich.

Once again they came through, intact and pointless.

My family disapproved of gambling and buying lottery tickets, but they believed in stamps.


This is because my great-grandparents were postmaster, then postmistress of the little Wairarapa settlement of Whareama, which had a rare postmark, the family always said, a fact which I expect is of no great interest to anyone.

Once again the box of stamps, too, that my grandmother and aunt clipped from letters, or bought from stamp dealers for their prettiness, have pulled through, and I feel almost disappointed. I'm stuck with them again.

Sometimes I rummage through the box and read letters from family members to each other, all uniformly bland, inevitably ending, like a child's thankyou letter, with how they have to hurry before signing off.

Yet these bland letters were kept.

Toll calls cost too much for keeping in touch, and they were proof that they remembered each other between infrequent visits to the town from the country. I can't let myself dump them: It would be like killing a pet. This is how hoarders become hoarders.

Survivors of this week's quake include children's books owned by my mother, father, aunt and grandmother, with family dedications that remind me of people I only ever heard about, but never met, like Stan and Jessie, my great-aunt, whose Pomeranian dogs stand up and beg in old black and white photographs.

The illustrations in the old books, family Christmas and birthday presents, were the first impressions I had of art. No wonder people used to frame the colour plates, which were sometimes lovely. But do I need them?

My grandmother's toby jug will have made it somewhere in my unpacked things from moving house. That I really like. It used to sit on her mantelpiece next to a clock with a pendulum movement, decorated with vaguely Biblical images of bulrushes.

The little pink Mary Gregory glass vase that was my great-grandmother's wedding present made it through, as did the blue pottery arts and crafts vase, chipped, from the family farm, where there was nothing beautiful but the wild birds outside, and the native bush. Somewhere I still have the sombre religious books bought in the late 19th century to bore children with on Sundays.

My father's grim photographs of bulls, river, sheep dogs, and the now toxic Ruamahanga River are destined to stay in my life yet again, reminding me that he never really left home, even when he went away to the war.

Why can't I give up on them? Because then his memory would seem smaller.

The homoeopathic medicine chest I rescued from a tumbledown farm building many years ago is still here, with its phials of nux vomica, and smelling of old ointments. Inside is my grandmother's jar of smelling salts, its glass cork wedged permanently tight. I remember the vile smell of ammonia when I was little, but I won't be able to torture my grandchildren with it.

People lose so much in earthquakes, but so far these and other silly treasures - my grandmother's shimmering silver stalactites for Christmas trees, her fragile glass decorations - are still with me.

Miraculously, standing on a narrow ledge, my mother's little Beswick china pig and geese, and a little china duck she adored, didn't move one millimetre. I don't want them, nor do I treasure the pair of china girls with long skirts just along from them, bells in disguise, that were my mother's idea of a birthday present when I'd much rather have had a Donald Duck comic.

Quakes come and go, and through such pretty things, which I never liked, she imposes her will on me still. It takes more than a disaster to shake off a daughter's guilt.