What we can't leave behind

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I'm always transfixed by heart-rending news photos of people fleeing calamity with as many of their worldly goods as they can pile into and on top of a car, a truck, a wagon - whatever transportation is available to them.

At the beginning of the Iraq war, I found myself staring at one of those photos on the front pages of several newspapers and wondering how the people decided what to take with them - and what I would do in similar circumstances.

If it were necessary for me to leave my home, knowing I might not ever return, what would I choose to transfer from my old life to my uncertain new one?

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In a small, nonurgent way, my husband and I answered this question of what our most important possessions are when we moved to Boston. We had to determine which items we wouldn't entrust to the movers because we considered them irreplaceable. Not necessarily valuable as the world measures such things, but significant to us.

Some items were obvious - family photos (who knew that we owned boxes of them?), important papers, laptop computers with needed information on them, a thermos and cooler.

Then it got interesting: a "sunbonnet babies" quilt top pieced together by my grandmother, costume jewelry from the 1930s, a dog blanket, a huge collection of music tapes, an antique clock ... I blush to think of all the "stuff" we own.

At one time, I might have blithely spouted off about "things" not being important to me. But I now know that's not really true. I'm hoping it might be someday, but I haven't gotten there yet. I like to think that if we lost everything, I wouldn't grieve for what was gone. At the moment, however, I'm happier knowing that I can look at my sons' baby pictures any time I like.

This issue of what's important in our lives came up again recently when the Department of Homeland Security asked Americans to prepare a disaster kit with supplies for three days.

That made sense to my husband and me, since we have learned that keeping emergency supplies on hand is a good idea.

When we've lived in climates where ice or snowstorms might knock out the power and isolate us, we usually gathered our emergency stash in the fall: several cans of chili, beef stew, and soup; an ample supply of batteries of various sizes; flashlights; candles; wood, kindling, and matches for the fireplace; a portableradio; a gas cylinder for the grill.

What we'd never done before was to make the emergency kit portable. I dragged out a backpack, and my spouse started piling stuff in. Canned food? Check. Can opener? Yes. Dog food, bottled water - all there.

Then the discussion started: What about dishes, utensils, bowls, a pan? Napkins, toothbrushes, toothpaste? Maybe we should add some canned fruit. What about pouches of tuna in case it wasn't chili weather? And, oh yes, we'd need some clothes.

We started to fill another backpack.

What flashed across my mind at that point was those old B-grade sci-fi flicks featuring attacks that wiped out most of the US population. For one giddy moment I found myself wishing I'd paid more attention to what the hardy survivors had found useful.

As I laughed at that image, I realized once again that sometimes humor can be helpful. Because behind all this was a very serious question - just what were we preparing for? Why did Tom Ridge think we needed three days' worth of supplies? Were we going to be asked to evacuate because of a poison gas attack, a terrorist bombing, or some calamity too terrible to contemplate? .

For my husband and me, this was an exercise in preparedness. We hope and expect that we won't have to use the supplies we gathered.

But I can only imagine what it must have been like for the Iraqi people in that photograph - and for those who have had to flee floods, earthquakes, and hurricanes.

Choosing between this item and that isn't just a matter of what people need - or can do without - materially. It is a question of how much they can save from the life they have known.

I suspect that taking familiar possessions with you is one way of keeping alive the hope that someday life will return to normal.

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