Packing Boxes, Moving Onward

FOR an entire month we were filling cardboard boxes with a seemingly endless stream of our possessions. To move is to be exhausted. When the move involves a family with four children and several pets, logistics become a test of parental equilibrium and endurance.

But perhaps the greatest travail of all, for us, was the heaviness of heart that accompanied each small act of disconnecting. Saying goodbye is the price for moving on. But stored memories are the wealth we carry with us.

After 12 settled years in Kentucky, the longest time I've ever spent in one state, we had to tear up deep and settled roots to set a new course eastward. After a year of fruitless job searching, my husband had been offered an assistantship in a PhD program that would hopefully lead him to a job in college teaching.

Moving to new places has become a common phenomenon in the United States. If your company doesn't move you, searching for a job very well might. It becomes necessary to learn how to adapt to change and make homey the unknown.

Whenever I pack boxes I marvel at the thought of desert nomads who strapped all their possessions on a camel's back and set off at a day's notice, their children probably sitting astride with all of their toys inside a leather pouch. Tents were packed and ready to be set up on some distant spot of sand that would be as cozy as the last. After all, I can imagine the nomad thinking, the same stars still shine above.

But here, in Western culture, the act of moving on is full of poignant ritual and endless, necessary detail. Severing ties with the homeplace requires more than stamping out the campfire before the caravan moves on. Whether shutting off the phone and electric service or selling the beloved house or filling out the withdrawal forms for a child's school, the sense of not belonging anymore is sometimes extreme, disorienting.

As we got closer to our date of departure, I found that moving brought reminiscences of other moves that dotted my past like stepping stones to the present. A parade of people and places I have known passed through my thoughts and transformed my fear of change into hope for more good things yet to come. I realized that I now had another opportunity to make the transition into an exciting exploit and strangers into friends.

When my husband and I made our first major move 14 years ago, we were heading from Michigan to Pennsylvania. After years of college trips with only backpacks to weigh us down, this move into a life of domesticity appeared quite tame. I was late in my first pregnancy, and he was thinking about his new job.

While my husband drove the station wagon pulling a rental company's largest trailer attachment, I squeezed in behind the wheel of our compact car. We were each outfitted with CB radios, and as we set out we felt like rookie commandos on a home mission.

FREQUENT stops to meet my constant need for food and exercise made the trip last longer than it might have. But in the heady mountain air, and with the feeling of exuberance from the new life that kicked incessantly, every delay seemed manageable. Excitement was still part of our lifestyle. I couldn't have imagined then how life might become significantly more complicated or unruly once our twosome had expanded.

Our Pennsylvania home that year was the top floor of a crumbling Victorian city house where plaster fell from the ceilings and furniture was sparse. Before long, the routine of those days included the demands of a newborn. A rocking chair scraping the hardwood floor and the loud wailings of our baby, eventually giving way to infant sleep, were common sounds.

While my husband went to work teaching adolescent boys in a nearby military academy, I made friends with other new mothers and watched our baby grow. Within those five rented rooms transpired the daily drama that my husband, daughter, and I shared. And in the constant warmth of family love, we brought to life a home. The peaceful domesticity of that year seemed impervious to change.

Yet one year later we were moving again, this time to Kentucky. We were now a family that included one small child and another on the way. The three of us sat perched up high on the seat of a rental truck, the medium-sized one, with our station wagon trailing behind.

Stowed away inside the truck was our robin's-egg blue compact car. The possessions which surrounded it were assorted, like a feathering for a nest.

In this case, our future nest would be made up of the eclectic furniture we had acquired from an ancestral attic and the myriad accouterments that just one baby seemed to require. The last glimpse that I had before the truck's back door was rolled down was of our new wooden highchair, a fine coating of hardened oatmeal on its left leg and a plastic bag of fresh cloth diapers sitting on its tray.

This move became more complicated as we dealt with changing diapers at grassy highway stops, spooning applesauce at 60 m.p.h., and trying to converse above the engine's roar and the baby's cry. This move was definitely very tiring and messy, but I still thought of it as a new adventure.

The 200-acre farm we managed those years in Kentucky was both home and workplace for my husband and me and three more daughters.

Soon our old farmhouse and fields were filled with the shrieks of small children, the bleating of lambs, and the din of hungry cattle. People came from all around to experience the novelty of shearing sheep and picking beans, or merely to stock up on produce or alfalfa hay. Our friendships in the small town were many, and even foreign students came and went.

Our family circle was resonant with exuberant activity. Underneath all the hub-bub of daily life flowed the cohesive current of affection that made the farm a home. Those years seemed endless in their rural routine, leaving us less prepared than ever for the challenge of a move.

None of our past moves were as complicated or as poignant as the one we had to make so recently, from Kentucky to Maryland. The goodbyes were made reluctantly and included all the friends of my four daughters, as well as my own. How difficult it was to watch one daughter exchange gifts with her best friend from kindergarten, now age 11.

As I sat and listened to another daughter's Brownie troop serenade her with "Make new friends but keep the old, One is silver and the other gold," I felt the tears start down my cheeks. I knew from my own uprooted childhood how hard it is to stay in touch when young, but I also knew the memories would remain and that letter writing has its own particular intimacy.

After our month of packing, it took seven hours to fill the largest truck the rental company had to offer. Furniture and clothes, books and paintings, tools and toys, and that vast array of unlabeled paraphernalia were all crammed into 26 feet of truck. The last thing that I glimpsed before the door closed was that same wooden highchair, scratched and wobbly now, four babies later. Stacked upon its tray was a favorite tire swing and assorted bags of hamster litter, dog food, and stuffed animals.

Our station wagon was secured behind the truck on a special ramp for towing. There were bicycles roped on two sides like barnacles and one bookshelf tied to its roof. Inside it went our two large dogs, three hamsters in their labyrinth, one guinea pig in its wire cage, and one microwave oven stuffed with saucepans and a coffee pot.

Into the truck's cab went my husband, accompanied by two of our daughters, a pound of M&M's, books, tapes that crooned songs about baby whales, a pack of "Twenty Questions" game cards, and more. Like a spaceship cockpit, it was outfitted to go long distances into strange and unknown territory.

Following behind this mammoth modern-day conveyance, I drove our family minivan. A kind friend was eager to accompany me, insisting that this was, for her, a great adventure. Adventure, apparently, was still possible for this overladen, large family.

Our other two daughters joined me and would rotate on a regular basis from van to truck. Our vehicle held the food and drink for our trip and was, to me, a first-class accommodation. I hoped our lone Siamese fighting fish, propped in the back between picnic basket and cooler, would think so too. I had emptied his fishbowl halfway to avoid a deadly spill.

With teary sighs and quick last-minute glances, we took leave of our Kentucky home and set off to parts unknown. I plucked a rose from a friend's rose bush to adorn my dashboard and remind me of hope ahead. My rose withered in the summer heat, but the excitement of the highway, the modern pioneer's trail, beckoned us once more.

The truck was so heavily laden that, like a sagging donkey on the way to market, it would not move fast. When we finally drove into Maryland 18 hours later, traffic seemed denser, the familiar bluegrass had disappeared, and the "fresh crab" signs were springing up along the road.

As we approached our new neighborhood, one exit before Annapolis, the girls were jumping in their seats, trying to take in all the sights.

Their outlook had changed gradually from regret to curious excitement, while mine was still lagging a bit behind. The small bridge we crossed over the Chesapeake Bay was, for them, both dramatic and delightful. Sailboats skimmed by and the water glowed with sparkling light, like the tears I still shed easily. We were entering a brand new world, unfamiliar, but not unkind.

While pulling into the driveway of our new rental house, I felt the pioneer's rough tug - unsure of the future, not yet finished with the past, and yet tremulous about the present that would now begin.

Hours later, all seven of us were still unloading, piece by piece, the contents of that truck. Our Kentucky boxes lay strewn and half-emptied throughout the barren house.

I looked around at those familiar objects for reassurance: the Amish quilt from a friend in rural Pennsylvania; the potato-shaped platter from my boss on the Idaho potato farm; the gleaming wood from a Kentucky black walnut tree, cut down and crafted by my father-in-law into a dining table; oil paintings of palm trees in Cuba; my wedding dress from Michigan; and a mantel full of framed photos of old friends left behind.

I knew that these tangible mementos were just a hint of the deep connections we had made. Those people and places we missed were now part of our inner geography. Thoughts of them would give us encouragement in the lonely, settling-in days ahead.

Our homes, I realize now, after this most trying move, are what we bring to the new dwelling place, both in our heart's memory and in the daily living out of family love. With this foundation, we can confidently stow those empty boxes in the basement, and find ourselves at home.

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