Thursday, March 20, 2014

How I Learned to Travel Light

A single small suitcase, my violin, and a doll that I clutched to my flat chest--that is how I left Spain almost sixty years ago.  My parents carried one suitcase each, plus my father's violin and viola.  We were going on a great adventure to the heart of darkness.  And we were going to cross the Atlantic to New York, and then south all the way to Ecuador, by plane

My mother had a special suit made for the flight, and bought a new hat.  My father got a haircut.  My aunts tied freshly-ironed red ribbons around my pony tails.  PanAmerican Airlines treated us royally and issued us elegant blue-and-white flight bags, but they were adamant on luggage limits.  Hence the single suitcase, and the single doll.
 In my suitcase were a couple of dresses, some socks and underwear.  But the rest of my family of dolls, the little terracotta Madonna that stood at the head of my bed, and the Spanish translations of Mary Poppins, The Wind in the Willows, The Jungle Book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Tom Sawyer were all left behind--along with my aunts and uncles and my four grandparents, not to mention the German nuns and the girls who had made fun of my glasses in school.

We were going, but only for a year.  In retrospect, remembering the look in my grandmothers' eyes, I think they must have known that we would never return to live in Barcelona.  But we, or at least I, didn't know that.  We were only leaving for a year.  We'd be back.



So when we arrived in Quito, and rented a house and unpacked our suitcases, we sort of camped out.  Since we were only staying for a year, and all furniture had to be hand-made to order, my parents got the bare minimum.  I remember a contemporary-looking but uncomfortable spindle-backed sofa.  And I especially remember the kitchen table, made by a less renowned artisan out of improperly-dried wood, which promptly curled up at the edges.

When the Ecuadorian government, to my parents' surprise and dismay, ran out of money to honor my father's contract, they nevertheless kept promising payment "any day now."  Before we knew it almost four years had elapsed, and we were still making do with the curly table and a couple of dented cooking pots.

When, out of the jungle mists, the opportunity arose to come to the United States, I packed my
suitcase and my violin and, leaving the doll behind, followed my parents to Birmingham, Alabama.  There again we camped out for the first few years, for how did we know whether things would work out?

I remember going to Sears with my  mother to buy some china, a couple of beds, and an upholstered sofa, less artisanal but more comfortable than the Ecuadorian one.  Even though there were no more financial disasters like the one that had befallen us in Quito, it took us a long time to settle.  When I needed a desk I bought a piece of plywood and screwed four legs into it.  It shook and wobbled with every stroke of my pen--and that is how I felt too, kind of wobbly and provisional.

The ponderous bookcases and dining room suite, the four-poster bed and the marble-topped dresser that had been handed down to my parents on their marriage, their crystal, china, paintings and silverware, not to mention all our books, remained in the apartment in Barcelona.  Eventually my mother had the bed and the dresser and the dining room suite shipped to the U.S., but by then I had once again packed my suitcase and my violin and gone off to get married.

Over the following decades I did accumulate a houseful of belongings, and though I never felt tied to a particular place, I did drag everything that could be moved from house to house and state to state.  But now I've come full circle, and am almost back to the single-suitcase, one-doll stage.  I have so far given away thirty-eight boxes of books.  I have taken two carloads of pots and pans, including my beloved stainless steel milking pail, to the auction with nary a tear.

But I'm not nearly done.  And as I close the flaps on one more box of stuff that seems to hold my past, it occurs to me that the exercise I went through as a ten-year-old, picking out which one of all my dolls I would take with me to the New World, prepared me well for choosing which objects will accompany me to the continent I am about to enter.


Friday, March 14, 2014

Seven Pounds of Cassette Tapes

There was a time, back in the quasi-medieval gloom of the twentieth century, when cassette tape players were cool.  If you were used to carefully threading reel-to-reel tape only to have it snap and strike you in the face like a cobra, the click of the cassette into the player, the thunk of the "play" button followed by music seemed as miraculous as getting water from a faucet versus fetching it from a well.

A technologically-inclined college boyfriend of mine was so enamored of cassette players that when he was away at his summer job he used to send me tapes instead of letters.  After I married, I learned that my new husband's grandfather was as fond of the little machines as my old boyfriend had been.  He used them to record family phone conversations, no matter how trivial.  If we called to let him know at what time we would arrive at his house, t we would hear the click that told us were being recorded for posterity.

And that is why, cleaning out a closet the other day, I came upon a bag containing seven pounds (yes, I weighed it) of cassette tapes. Seven pounds of forty-year-old conversations.  Seven pounds of baby babble.  Seven pounds of voices that will never speak again. 

There's me, sounding like a have a cold, interrupting the conversation to tell my toddler not to pick up the clock, please!  There's a three-year-old telling her grandparents that she just got new shoes.  There's me again, calling from the maternity ward to say I need my watch so I can time how long the baby nurses on each side...

I know what's in those tapes because one night around Christmas, after my mother in law died and the tapes were shipped to us, we sat around with our grown children and played a few of them.  And then for the decade that followed they sat in the closet, untouched.

Our present house has ten closets.  The cottage we are moving to has four--and no attic, no basement, no outbuildings.  No place to hold and hide the flotsam and jetsam of our long lives until it falls to someone else to find and deal with it.  But the shift from ten closets to four is forcing me to do something about those seven pounds of tapes, tout de suite.

When paper was scarce, not so very long ago, all that might remain of a grandmother's correspondence was a packet of yellowed letters bound in ribbon.  Before photographs became ubiquitous, you were lucky if your ancestors, if they were people of means, handed down a painted portrait or two.  But now the past, or at least the material evidence of the past, is always with us, demanding to be recaptured, relived, revered--and threatening to crush us with its weight.

I must confess to chafing under this accumulation of letters, photos, dry cleaners' bills, bits of lace, broken earrings--all of which meant something to someone at some time.  Why should I bear the moral weight of deciding what to keep and what to throw out?  Why should I have to grit my teeth and do what the previous generation was too soft-hearted to do?


I believe that the parents and grandparents who saved the things I find in our closets these days--a maternity ward receipt for my spouse's circumcision ($3.00), an embroidered hankie, the seven pounds of cassette tapes--were prompted by love for us, their descendants.  And it is a different expression of love, but one just as strong--love for those who will come after me and who should be spared from disposing of the relics of my past--that keeps me sadly but methodically making these objects vanish from our lives.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Last Egg

In chicken years, they were about my age.  No conventional egg farmer would have let them live so long past their laying prime, but time kept getting away from me, and they did do their best to lay an occasional egg, so I ended up coddling them through this brutal winter, buying them special grain  treats and filling their water dish with hot water laced with organic cider vinegar.

But although the retirement community to which we're moving is as green and granola as they come, they don't allow chickens.  Not wanting to postpone the inevitable, last night, in the dark, I plucked my hens one by one gently from the roost, and covering their heads with my hand to keep them calm, deposited them in the big dog crate, over which I then draped a dark cloth.

Today, in the clear, sub-zero dawn, we loaded the crate into the truck.  It was surprisingly light--old ladies don't weigh much--and my husband drove them to their final destination.

Except it wasn't exactly final, because nothing ever is.  Right now the hens are lying in state inside our freezer.  In a few days I will take them out and put them in the big stock pot with onions, celery and carrots, and let it all simmer for a day and a night.  Off the bones, the stringy meat will gladden the hearts of Wolfie and Bisou, and the rich broth will nourish my husband and me.  Thus, our six hens will literally become a part of us, until we in turn become nourishment for other forms of life.  Nothing is ever lost in this remarkably thrifty universe.

After my husband left with the crate, I went into the silent chicken coop.  I unplugged the heated water dish.  I looked at the frozen pile of droppings under the roosts and decided to wait until the spring thaw before hauling them to the compost pile.  Then I glanced into the nest and there was an egg, big and beige and frozen solid, one last gift from my last hens.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Thank Heavens for the Downstairs Guest Room

I can barely stand to be in my house these days, and given that winter is still raging outdoors and I have a lifetime's worth of worldly goods to sort through indoors, sometimes I feel on the verge of hysteria.

There are two reasons that being home makes me crazy.  The first is that every single object that my eyes light on--a picture on the wall, a rug on the floor, a plate on the table, a nutpick in the drawer--requires a decision:  to keep or not to keep, and if the latter, to a) throw away;  b) give away (and if so, to whom?); or c) sell (and if so, where?).

The second reason is that, having started the paring process with the bookcases that occupy almost every room, and having actually made some progress, those rooms are now defaced by stacks of book-filled liquor-store boxes that threaten to topple and squash Bisou.  And then there are those poor denuded book shelves, littered by the few volumes that have escaped my ruthless hand and showing, behind where the books used to be, a nine-year accumulation of dust and ashes.  If you are in need of rest and serenity, those rooms are the last place you want to be.

I know only too well that this--the dismantling, the decisions, the packing and the mess--is going to grow steadily worse over the next three  months before the halcyon date of June 2, when we will say farewell to this good house forever.  Three months of difficult decisions in the midst of chaos would normally unhinge me, but there is a chance that I won't lose my mind completely, thanks to the Downstairs Guest Room.

This blessed space has a sofa bed, a little table, an old pine chest, a once-glorious, now-faded rug, some pictures on the wall, a mirror, a good reading lamp, and no bookcase.  I have already decided that everything in this room, except for the pictures on the wall, is going to come with us.  Hence, until the last moment, it can remain in its present orderly state:  no empty boxes waiting to be filled;  no full ones waiting to be taken away, no choices, no angst. 

Every afternoon, when the sun begins to sink at the horizon and my spirits--weary from a day of deciding what to do with my long-abandoned stone carving tools or talking myself out of keeping a particularly soulful piece of pottery--start to plunge, I repair to the Downstairs Guest Room.  I turn on the lamp, dive into my Kindle, and proceed to knit the raveled sleeve of the day's care.

Need I mention that there's also Bisou snoozing on a cozy blanket on my right, and a glass of wine on the little table at my left?  Periodically, as I reach the end of a chapter, I look around and thank the universe for the Downstairs Guest Room, a sanctum where I can rest my eyes from the chaos, and my mind and my heart from the endless task of letting go, letting go, letting go.