When you move 11 times in 18 years it’s hard to hold on to much of anything. Each move began with boxes that were flat and wrapped in bundles held together with heavy jute twine. The twine was very strong and you couldn’t pull it apart or you’d cut your hands. It had to be sliced with a knife or scissored. But before the first box was assembled we purged, like prepping for a colonoscopy. The house was scoured of things we didn’t need to bring to the next place and carted to the town dump.
“Do you really need to keep your Grade One reader ‘Hello David’”, my mom asked. “What about tuffy the tiger?”
Oh dear. Not Tuffy! Tuffy was a huge stuffed tiger that perched at the end of my bed for about four years, which meant he survived at least two moves. Given to me by my dad on return from one of his business trips to the big city he was my sentinel, protecting me from the Bogeyman who lived in the furnace room of our apartment building. I used to help the janitor burn stuff in the big bellied oven in a dungeon of a room in the basement, heaving discarded wood and junk in and then jumping back to avoid singing my nose. Then something bad happened and I wasn’t allowed to go back.
Tuffy was turfed during the cleansing required to move not just from one house, but to a new town. I hated that new town for a long time, refusing to forgive it for Tuffy’s disappearance.
When my father died my mother gave two fur coats that were gifts from him to the Goodwill Store. No. Giving sounds too charitable. She wrapped them up and dumped them in a corner Goodwill donation box. The coats were purchased as part of a European tour wardrobe when dad took her back to the old country to visit his family. His beautiful American wife and the coats, the chattels, which proved his success in Canada.
Boxes, boxes, boxes. The first one was the hardest to fill. All my possessions were important. How could I live without one even for a day? If I put it in a box and then it got sealed up with super strong packing tape, the kind that had strings running through it, I’d never be able to retrieve what I wanted. It might as well be thrown out as packed. And so I tossed away my past rather than feed the empty box.
After the big move south to the Island, my dad bought a moving company in the new town. I guess he figured he was already a leaving expert so he might as well professionalize the skill. I don’t know how many times he’d packed up and ditched his past before my mom and I came along. Funny how you can still have a shitload of baggage even though you’re empty handed.
I used to hang out in the storage warehouse and watch the men load and unload people’s stuff. It was an archive of contained clutter, arranged in numbered aisles, boxes labeled to make sure they could be found again when the owners arrived in town and needed their house inflated with the goods that made a home. Sometimes stuff was abandoned. My friends and I would pick through the contents looking for clothes to dress up in. Mostly the boxes were filled with grubby old kitchen utensils, pots, baking tins still coated with a thin skin of grease. A film of sticky residue stuck to our fingertips, evidence of our curiosity.
Hiding in the warehouse was fun with its canyons of crates and wardrobe boxes stacked on pallets and two-by-four frames like a wooden exoskeleton protecting the soft-underbelly of peoples’ lives. When my mom and dad would fight I’d run in the boxed in alleyways, down the long concrete aisles looking for a place to disappear.
Darting into a space between two tall wardrobe boxes I would slip sideways into the cracks. Pressing my back against one of the boxes, knees almost touching my chest, I would lift my feet to the opposite wall of cardboard and start an ascent, simultaneously sliding my back up the smooth box and walking my feet upward. Reaching the top of the box, I’d flatten my body and lie still, willing my pulse to be quiet as I’d lie listening for worried footsteps and a voice calling my name. I liked to make them worry about me. It gave them something else to think about besides their mutual failings.
Learning to chuck away non-essentials has left me with a tidy legacy but not very many cherished tchotchkes. Like my mother before me, I am an expert in expurgation. My kids are used to the quarterly curb kicking of material goods. But there was a time when I met with resistance.
Our youngest likes stuff. She is a collector. On a multi-city trip to China she collected one pair of disposable slippers from every hotel we stayed in. A trip to the east coast netted us a suitcase full of surf-dashed-smooth beach rocks. I blame her father for this habit. He has a container of all her baby teeth. When we replaced our kitchen table she clung to one battered, paint chipped old chair and yelled “You can’t take this chair away! You’ll take away my childhood!”
Did you see the movie “The Pursuit of Happyness”? There is a scene where the characters played by Will Smith and his son, who are on a downward spiral to homelessness, are evicted from the motel they are living in. Piled outside the motel room are their few possessions – a cardboard box and a garbage bag of clothes. They leave it all behind but not before the son gently caresses the box. As he walks away, he looks back several times. In each hand he carries his last two things – a basketball and a lunch box.
My prized possession? A lamp. It is a memory of an old house in a soggy coast town in northern British Columbia; of a family thrown together with little in common that in the long run holds together despite the baggage of previous lives. It followed my mom, a child of the Dirty Thirties, who clung to it through a lifetime of too many moves to count. Now it shines in my living room in a home I’ve lived in for 21 years.