Several years ago, packing up to move after graduate school, I came across a slip of paper neatly folded and tucked inside a novel. The book--John Updike's Couples--was one of a stack left by a previous tenant, a collection that included a tattered English-Russian dictionary, three volumes of a '50s-vintage encyclopedia set, a biography of Mao Zedong and a half-dozen tattered paperback mysteries.
The note read:
1. Begin each meal chewing food with lips. Chew on back teeth--every day you forget to do this--Do five of chewing with gum--
2. (marked out)
3. Step down firmly on heels when walking. Watch for low branches. Be every day like a Roman.
Like most moving days, this one had been busy, a day of lists and chores and boxes and schedules. This note, of course, stopped everything. I read it twice, fixed a glass of tea, took the scrap of paper out to the porch and sat down to examine it more closely. The handwriting was feminine and somehow elderly, the paper unlined and, protected from light all these years, only just beginning to yellow. In the top right corner there was a date: 12-17-68, the dark end of a year so replete with death and violence and chaos that no one could be faulted for making a few cautious resolutions.
But what could it mean? What was this business of chewing with one's lips? Why was no. 2 marked out? How did this particular Updike novel, Couples, figure in? The story of the sexual entanglements of 10 suburban New England couples must have been, in 1968, fairly scandalous. Perhaps this woman had had some sort of dental procedure and needed distracting. Perhaps Updike's fiction, combined with the year's non-fictional drama--King shot dead, and Bobby Kennedy, and body bags arriving from the rice paddies and jungles of a distant nation--perhaps all this had prompted in her a determination for, at very least, a private dignity. Be every day like a Roman.
I sat and thought about her, gave her a kind face and a sensible percale dress, a hometown, and a husband whose early death forced upon her an unforeseen frugality. By the time I looked up again an hour had passed; the apartment that I had occupied so thinly, a room with kitchen and bath that I might otherwise have forgotten in a year's time, now held a story scratched out on a scrap of paper, and a ghost I would not forget.
We are shadows to each other, Saul Bellow wrote, and shadows within shadows. How much of our lives is spent peering into the dimness, parsing form from empty space?
I thought about that note again last week, packing for yet another move and unearthing relics and artifacts that, years from now, separated from the warm bodies that gave them meaning, will tell their own stories. In a file cabinet, for instance, I came across a sheet of notebook paper on which my husband had recorded the duration of, and intervals between, the labor contractions leading to our son's birth. The numbers stood in two straight columns down the center of the page, with comments in the margins.
Those notes had a distinct and pragmatic purpose: In normal labor, contractions grow longer and more frequent; when the upward arc of duration meets the downward arc of interval, it's time to go to the hospital. Because my husband is a lawyer, trained to record and not editorialize on the facts, the columns of numbers march unadorned down the page. Because my husband is a father, and was about to witness the birth of his fourth child, the notes in the margins are rather less businesslike. There, he jotted down the household activity that occurred as labor progressed: the comings and goings of the older children, the details of a dream my husband had had about a tailless alligator and--my own favorite--a description of everything he ate while we waited out labor. 30 sec. long 9:48 (smoothie); 30 sec. 10:40 (have pizza)
Also in the "baby file" was a copy of the office pool in which a not insubstantial amount of money was placed on when I would deliver, with odds peaking just before my due date (she never misses a deadline, was the tip circulating in the halls); a plastic Ziploc bag containing the shriveled remains of an umbilical cord; and a note I'd made to myself a month after bringing the baby home and two sleep-deprived weeks after beginning to wonder what the Sam Hill I had gone and done. The words had come from a neighbor, another mother who'd watched me walk up and down the street every morning, trying to get the baby to fall asleep. The days are long, I wrote on the back of an envelope, but the time is short.
Other items of note in the file cabinet: a small pack of letters from a prisoner, painstakingly outlining the conspiracy that had put him behind bars; certificates for a half-dozen failed stocks; a birthday card from my grandfather wishing me a blue ribbon in my next horse show. Also a photograph of me standing with a boy I met in Munich the summer after graduating from college--one of those pictures you pass over a dozen times before you realize the person looking back at you belongs to another whole life. I had been traveling for weeks and was tired of the trains; this boy had a car, and so I begged a ride down to Venice. We left at sunset and drove most of the night. The picture was taken at a cafe in the Italian Alps, and in the photo our eyes are ironic and a little sad, each of us thinking of someone else and a bit regretful, since how many times in one life does a person drive through the Italian Alps on a moonlit night?
A cornsnake named Bob lives at my daughter's preschool. Bob's aquarium sits just inside the front door, and because he is typically fed at the beginning of the day I've learned to be apprehensive about arriving each morning. Rodent distress may be part of the circle of life, but it's not how I prefer to begin my day.
The children love Bob, though; my 4-year-old will stand utterly still while Bob coils gently around her neck and puts his forked tongue in her ear. (At such times it is easy to imagine Eve's seduction, the cool dusty scales, the whispered assurances.) One of Bob's best features is his frequently shucked skin, long transparent husks hung up for the children to enjoy. When my daughter comes home to say that Bob has "moved out again," she means he has shed another skin. I'm sure that if you look closely enough at the cast-offs, fraying and papery, you would see that each has its marks, stories Bob can't tell, faint relics of an earlier time. Moving stories.
I love hearing my friends' moving stories. How Carol drove across Death Valley with a bag of ice on the luggage (she'd meant to put it on the engine); or how a half-dozen hens, indifferent to the fact that their barnyard had become a subdivision, insisted on roosting in Chris' new mudroom. Or how Marla, determined to get her security deposit back, spent a whole morning chiseling a bag of fossilized Ore-Ida Tater Tots out of her freezer. I think about a house we lived in 10 years ago, one in which we would occasionally find stashes of Penthouse and Hustler left by the previous owners. The current owners are friends and colleagues of mine, and I worry about what glossy nether regions have surfaced since we moved out.
The average American, says U-Haul, moves seven times in her lifetime. I've moved 27 times, though that counts the moves I made with my parents, plus every apartment and room I rented throughout college and graduate school. Put those aside and the real number is closer to 11; bad enough, I suppose. And because I've dragged my husband through three of the 11 he feels justified in making fun of my nomadic nature. I tell him that his is a narrow perspective, that Mongolians of the Arkhangai province fold their gers whenever the grazing gets thin. He has a point, though. The Mongolians don't need a Mayflower van and a sweating spectacle of human brawn to move from place to place.
It has gotten harder with each move. For years, when it was just me, my bed, my books and my dog, I could do the whole thing by myself, in a matter of hours. Now we are a family of four, five if you count adjunct older children. My advice to anyone who thinks they have successfully dodged the consumer culture is spend a week packing. My daughter's Barbies need their own Mayflower van. My husband's ties, safety-pinned together, would circle the planet three times. There are toys to pack, and china, sports equipment, linens, board games, camping equipment, bikes. We have not just everyday glassware but beer mugs, sippy cups, sherry glasses, port wine glasses, red wine glasses, white wine glasses, punch cups, juice tumblers, champagne glasses, and a half-dozen plastic cups emblazoned with Scooby-Doo and Dora the Explorer. And the books. Holy bibliotheca. We've got not just Shakespeare but the Transcendentalists, the Marxists, the Fugitives, the Moderns, Post-Moderns and Post-post Moderns and at least two copies of Bread and Jam for Frances.
It is harder, too, because with children every move is fraught with nostalgia. I will, in the right mood, cart heirlooms to the pawn shop, recycle bridal gowns, sell every bauble of sentimental value. But I am loathe to part with so much as a Wal-Mart onesie if it was ever worn by my children. I will give their things away, I do give their things away, but not without regret that never will my daughter wear another duckling nightie or find the antidote to every fear in a cloth doll. It took me several years to realize that if I hoarded every piece of art they brought home from school the authorities would eventually have to airlift us out of the house. A discarded pacifier assumes tragic stature. (To put things in perspective, my oldest child is 7.)
And so, knowing this time what I was up against, I began the purge back in January. I started in the mornings, when I am at my most cutthroat. New day, clean slate, fresh start. I stuffed plastic bags with clothes, toys, rattles, stuffies, the baby monitor that we kept next to the bed and that used to pick up cell-phone conversations along with the baby's cries. (I woke up one night wondering who it was my 3-month-old was planning to meet at the mall.)
By midday I'd be useless, overwhelmed by the effect of meeting my family's past in every drawer and closet. My son's first Red Cross swimming certificate, the crinkly ladybug toy that kept my daughter's attention while her diaper was changed, the notes from daycare. Henry had a good day. Played with blocks and ate his noodles. A fire truck woke him up at naptime, but he went back to sleep.
How can I be expected to give away the special fuzzy blanket we wrapped Henry in his first winter, when only the cold air would soothe him? Or the board books he and his sister read and threw across the room and chewed on? I have read Puppy Says One Two Three, out loud and with unfailing enthusiasm, probably 600 times. By what heartless logic do I throw out a book I have read 600 times? Not even the Transcendentalists deserve that.
The new house, the one from which they will have to carry me in a pine box, has stood on its square of red clay for more than 50 years. The land itself has been occupied since 1759 and holds, no doubt, artifacts of its own. Stories to uncover.
As for our old house, I continue to cull, bag and carry away. Shedding one last skin. With luck it will be a clean move, nothing left behind. If not, I imagine the new people will be generous in their interpretations. I hope they'll give me a kind face and a sensible dress. I'd like to be, if possible, a pleasant ghost.