As I pack again, I treasure what I cannot keep

As we pack up our house in Virginia, the contents of the bedside drawer seem so odd. The drawer is full of the unresolved and the sentimental, bits and pieces I never seemed able to throw away. There is a packet of family wedding pictures and a little velvet box containing my father's medals from World War II. I feel I should treasure these things, but I really only look at them on occasions like this. We move every few years because of the Foreign Service. So once again, these odds and ends have come up to be decided upon.

There are things we need, things we treasure, and things that follow us around. I'm trying to reduce the things that follow.

But what should I do with all the scarves I never wear, most of them gifts from people I love? What about the earrings that Glenda made and which no longer suit me, or the necklace given to me by Anna? So often it's the jewelry I cannot offload. At times like this, I try it on. I want to wear the emblems of the friendships I hold close, even as other things are packed away.

But all these photographs! I haven't put them in albums and yet I can't discard them. There's one of Patricia in Buenos Aires sitting beside me on a sofa. Although the occasion was happy, the picture is badly composed. Likewise is the shot of my friend Lucy standing on Gloucester Road with a Yorkshire terrier tucked under her arm. She was evidently on her way to the post office because she's holding a letter.

And here is one of my father-in-law, taken for some unknown reason in a garage. He's all dressed up and looks as mild as he comes, except that he doesn't come mild. Not recognizing this man as my father-in-law, I don't know what to do with his photograph. That's why it's ended up in my drawer. This is the man he isn't.

This set of wedding pictures has never been put into albums because, although they are professional, they don't record the occasion I remember. My daughter, Rozzie, walks up the aisle, subdued and solemn as a bridesmaid. My son, Alex, and husband, Ben, awkwardly roll out a white carpet. In a third picture, Alex holds the end of a bell rope. But they look self-conscious. There is no spontaneity in any of these pictures, and strangely, no memory in their composition.

I prefer to remember that wedding differently. Less professionally, if you will.

So I sit on the bed sorting the treasured things from those that follow me around. Most of the important stuff has already gone, sent like an envoy to the new post. I felt a kind of freedom as boxes were carried to the moving van.

How dusty and worthless those knickknacks looked on the dining room table, waiting to be packed. Why do we have so many masks and marionettes? I'll be glad to see them when I'm in an unfamiliar environment, but their departure from the house does not remove the aura of home. Once they are gone, I can't help wondering why I need them.

Finally, all that remains are things we cannot use: an old sofa, the pink bookcases, bedroom curtains in polished chintz.

The hallway is suddenly spare. Sunlight and shadow become the main players. Voices echo across the Mexican tile. Even the flushing of a toilet is thunderous; so are conversations and the breakfast preparation downstairs.

I hear the stir and clink of a spoon in a cup.

On the window seat across the room, a pile of clothes is waiting to be sorted. The vacuum cleaner cord winds across the carpet. There's a row of empty suitcases.

And this handful of photographs? At last I throw them away. The home is stripped to its essence now, and everything is alive to the moment. The present itself has become what I treasure, as well as what I cannot keep. It also, strangely, keeps following me around.

The view from the bay window is what I've always loved best: the green garden and sun-tipped silver maple.

Though I won't be taking it with me, perhaps it will follow in some other form, along with the ephemera of those discarded photographs and the sounds that now count as objects in our empty house: Schubert's Fantasie playing on the laptop, birdsong, and someone hammering on a piece of wood. The traffic in the distance on Route 66 drones like rushing water. There is a rustle of newspaper as someone turns a page, and the sudden swell of cicadas.

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