Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, May 25, 2014
My mother loved to tell people how good it felt to finally settle into our Seattle house after having moved 11 times in 17 years.
Not just because of the house, whose mahogany doors and brass fixtures I still dream about. But because, as the wife of an army officer who is away for the first dozen years of married life, she does much of the moving solo, which is hard to fathom, given her three small children in tow and the added hoop-jumping of being a woman and a foreigner. She inventories, boxes, organizes, cleans, even sells real estate, while, of course, never letting the Chief of Staff think anyone but he is anything but in charge. Brings to mind that quote about Ginger Rogers doing everything Astaire does in the movies but backwards and in high heels.
By the time I come along, we only have five moves left, but dad is around more, and he throws in his own extravagant touches. For the move back to Europe in 1962, we take along the Pepto-Bismol-colored Buick Riviera we call Betsy, a real head snapper in the land of Renaults and mopeds. And coming back in ‘65 to the big house, undaunted, he sends a container full of antiques over, things he has already penciled in on scale drawings of every room in the house. Every bureau, bed, sideboard, footstool, ironing board, lamp, old painting, and ancient clock is already in its place, destined to remain there for the next 30 years. Moving… has ended.
Maybe my mother’s I’m-so-done feelings about moving rub off on me. When I move away to college in the 70s, I exit with a suitcase in one hand and a rinky-tink stereo set with bookend speakers in the other. Possibly one of those Tensor lamps. Then, after college, heading east on the Canadian Pacific Railway from Seattle to New York (6 days of coach, and, wow, what an “adventure”), it is much the same: a suitcase in each white-knuckled fist as I step down onto the platform at Grand Central Station.
I arrive here in the ‘80s with precious little in the trunk of my ‘66 Cutlass Supreme. One suitcase of very nice business clothes destined to mildew within a few weeks. A typewriter, a Royal. Another duffle of clothes. No furniture, gear, books, or anything of sentimental value. Electronics? They barely exist.
Now, many years down the road and after 21 of them living in the same house, I’m moving. I organize and box and discard and sell my real estate. I pack up hundreds of books to give away, and clean the oven, and uncomfortably list personal effects online to parse out. And finally, at the very end of it all, I take a good look around at the empty rooms as the months and years slideshow before me. Already, the house has a different smell. Whatever my life has brought to it has drained out, something obvious even to the cat, who, against all odds, hardly resists being carted away to a new place and a new life.
Some guys I’ve hired to help with the super heavy things are kindly rearranging it all in the storage unit before shoving in the last pieces of furniture.
Suddenly, as I disassociate from it, staring at it with my arms crossed and that Who-am-I-really feeling I’ve pretty much felt my whole life, it all looks so unnecessary, this pile of stuff, stuffed away next to hundreds of other alpha-numeric stuff-pile compartments separated by thin metal walls.
For the first time, I have this thought: What if I just left it all here? The hard part was re-examining it, then wrapping it in paper, then boxing it, taping it and essentially parting with it. Facing this multitude of cardboards cubes in stacks I’m wondering if it’s like a story you can pare down to two paragraphs, then to three sentences, then to a word and then eventually let that word go. Is that what I’d do? No. That’s not it.
“Memories?” One of the guys is reading a box I’ve labeled as he slides it into a tighter, better spot.
“Yeah,” I tell him, coming back into my body. “I guess — I got lazy with the labels.”
He wants me to explain, but I can’t. It’s a box of hundreds of things, each one guaranteed to open a memory vault. Every box in the storage unit, for that matter, could have been labeled exactly the same way. That might have been a more accurate enumeration of the 2,000 cubic feet of contents. As opposed to “Kitchen Stuff,” which means absolutely zero to me, apart from “Is that the one with the rice cooker in it, or the Yorkshire pudding tin?”
Now, sipping my coffee somewhere else, my cat in the sun and my companion not far away — with a portion of my old stuff to comfort me and a new life to sustain me, I think of my boxes of memories sitting quietly in a certain numbered compartment of a certain storage facility, guarded by a single spider trap and a semi-beefy padlock.
My memories are safe. They are within reach. And that’s all I really need to know for now.