Belongings and Belonging by Keith White

Thanks, not least to the writings of Donald Winnicott about transitional objects, there has been a growing sensitivity over recent decades to the belongings of those moving from home into foster and residential care or education.  These may include favourite toys, presents, clothes, pictures, books, and blankets, of course, which for many are reminders of Linus’s attachment to one in the Charlie Brown cartoons by Charles Schulz. They are potentially significant in any transitional phase in a young child’s life and can represent the mother/significant other or aspects of the bond with her, in her absence.  But there is general recognition that such objects can bring a sense of security to a child moving from familiar surroundings into the new and often unknown world of a residential placement.  Physical objects, along with perhaps a melody, or word, may be vital to the well-being and comfort of children in both their material and psychological worlds. 

In this piece I would like to reflect on belongings at a later stage in a child’s development: when the time comes for a young person to leave foster or residential care.  In some residential institutions, such as hospitals or prisons, it is vital as they say on trains and planes, to “take all your belongings with you”.  Apart from gifts to others, anything left behind is likely to be incinerated. 

But what about places such as Mill Grove, where children and young people have lived, for a substantial part of their childhoods?  Must they take all their belongings with them? What we have found is that, when given a choice, on leaving some young people have chosen to leave some of their belongings with us. The phenomenon has been so common that it is important to see what patterns, and motives, conscious and unconscious, might be in evidence.  

Of course, there may be sizeable items such as furniture that won’t fit into the accommodation where the young person will be living.  We do our best to store these for as long as possible.  Some young people know that they are going into temporary accommodation, so it makes sense to ensure that important personal items are kept somewhere safe for the time being.  

There are also personal items such as personal and family photos that, for whatever reason or reasons, are likely to be of considerable long-term value, perhaps even to the next generation.  These sometimes provoke memories, associations and feelings too raw to be faced or handled at the point of departure.  Rather than destroying them, on behalf of their subjects, we keep them safe at a distance. From time to time, we remind the owners that we have them, and there may be a little movement over the years.  But still the assumption is that we will keep them indefinitely, and that we can be relied upon to do so. 

Some time ago in a column for TTCJ, I described the visit of a young person and his little family years after he had left Mill Grove.  We showed him personal items that we had been keeping safe for him, including photos.  He was delighted to see them and took them all except a beautiful book of etchings of Appenzell, in Switzerland, by an artist we both knew well.  It was an area in the mountains near the Bodensee, in which we had stayed together, and the collection was a store of illustrations of places we had enjoyed together.  At his request we still have it, but why did he not take it with him?   

It remains a puzzle. So, what might be going on in his case, and that of many others?  I venture some musings, not because I am confident about them, but in the hope of provoking some helpful responses and suggestions from others.  Is there any analogy with the spoor of animals, I wonder: the desire of some species to “leave their mark” by way of scent?  My intuition is that there is often something deep, even primal, going on.  Is it a way of recording where you have been, possibly for yourself, but also for others?  I am not sure, but there is something to do with the identity of a young person going on. 

Another line of enquiry is to ask how closely it resembles the idea of a keepsake, possibly a lock of hair?  This is given to someone special in a person’s life as a reminder of their relationship.  The belongings left are certainly tangible reminders of the one who has moved on.  And, although I can’t recall any locks of hair left with us, some of the items left are personal in nature: a passport, letters, as well as photos, for example.  It would make good sense to leave something like this as a way of confirming that the relationship has not terminated with the physical move.  It’s a way of affirming belonging by means of belongings.  the nature of this word may hold within it a primary clue to what’s going on.   

There is also the possibility that a young person has come to see the place that they are leaving as their home.  Wherever else they may live, this is their real, perhaps only home.  If so, the leaving of belongings at, say Mill Grove, is a way of expressing a deep desire or longing.  It may be that throughout the young person’s life they will identify this as where they have their roots. 

Is it conceivable that the leaving of belongings might be a way of expressing personal thanks for all that a young person has experienced?  Without checking the evidence for this, my guess is that many of those who have left belongings have not expressed gratitude in other ways, such as say a note, or a small gift.  I hasten to add that such gratitude is far from our minds and never expected.  But the question remains. 

A final thought: is this yet another representation of the ambivalence that in my experience characterises all substitute and residential care. Regular readers of this column may recall how significant it was for me to realise that every action and relationship is inherently ambivalent.  That being so, it comes as no surprise to see this in evidence on leaving.  To leave physically, but to leave some belongings behind makes the point as clearly as it can be. 

By now you can see the very tentative and exploratory nature of my thoughts on this phenomenon.  But the probing for more understanding will go on because the belongings remain: continuous and inescapable reminder that something is going on.  Perhaps you can help me. 

In the meantime, we will continue to keep such belongings as we can, wondering what happens when, in many other cases, because of policies or the shortage of space, young people are sometimes forced to “take all their belongings with them”.  If any of the musings above have a crumb of validity, the stakes could be high.  Whatever else we do, it behoves us to pay as much attention to transitional objects at the end of a child’s stay, as it does at the beginning.

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