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Taking Home Pieces of Another Life

By Marcia Ferguson / October 21, 1996

The flaps on the boxes aren't closed yet, and every time I pass them, I flip something else in: a report card, a geography book, a plaster model of the Coliseum. I'm moving back to the States after a year in Rome. The things I'm putting into boxes here are going to look different when I unpack them. I feel satisfied as I bend to nestle each item in, their newspaper skins rustling together.

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Yet I notice there's a catch in my breath when I push the box into the foyer. Like a baby who is finally falling asleep after a bout of crying, I am relieved but also shaken. As the boxes take over more of the hallway, I feel a little lost, knowing that I belong nowhere for a time.

I ease the feeling by focusing on the terra- cotta tile in my hands, which I love. It's a venditore di formaggio, a cheese seller, and he's caught in a blue ceramic rain. In fact, it was raining hard the day I bought this in Umbria, buckets of rain that didn't stop for a week, but followed me all the way to Florence and back to Rome. Now's he's just something else to pack, but I'm still glad I got him. He will look good by the fireplace back home, out of the rain at last.

I'm trying to remind myself that it will take some time to reorient the family to our "real life." I remember coming back from another year abroad, a year in Japan, when everything in America seemed obscenely huge.

Refrigerators towered over me like mouthless giants, washing machines resembled empty swimming pools, and our brass, queen-sized bed was a vast expanse of irresponsibly squandered space (after all, we put our beds away in the closet every morning in Tokyo). Everyone ate too much, too fast, and we missed our daily serving of rice and tea. But after two or three shaky weeks, the shock wore off. We fell right back into our old cultural habits, no longer bowing to the check-out woman at the Food Fare, and once again charging unhesitatingly into the house with our shoes on.

The things I have accumulated on my trips, however, those pesky pieces filling up this long stream of boxes in my life, continue to pull at me even when planted in their new surroundings. I recall when I was newly back from Tokyo, anxiously unpacking the delicate tea set given to me by my friend Toshiko, so thin that it is transparent. I gave in immediately to an undeniable urge to make green tea. The action and the object transported me, and I sat quietly in the empty, echoing dining room for an hour pretending I was back in Japan.

When my daughter and I play with the white wooden elephant puppet we bought on vacation in Thailand (it's amazing that it's not broken yet), I'm drawn back into that crowded night market, and I can hear the chattering and smell the lemon grass cooking in the stall next door. When I pick up the clay wedding plate on which a love poem is written in ancient Japanese, I still see the proud potter who showed me the earthen kilns, built tight into the hills of Mashiko.

And now here I am in Rome, wrapping up yet another piece of future poignancy, a tiny ceramic box my father bought for my dresser top when he visited me in Italy at Christmas. Soon it will be drawing me back into that dusty little shop in Deruta, where the proprietor mistook us for Germans, then offered us a hot drink when he realized his mistake.