Moving House, Staying Home
OUR living room is full of cardboard boxes, each exactly suited in size and shape to its contents, stacked in crenelated walls beneath the wary, gilt-framed gazes of my great-great-great uncle, twice removed, Jessie Rutherford and his wife, Maryanne. Rutherford was a 19th-century Pittsburgh merchant, and he too will soon be suitably boxed, placed in a cavernous orange truck with all of his descendants' worldly possessions, to cross the continent. We are moving. At this point all that isn't essential for daily living in the next two weeks is in a box, labeled and taped shut. We are at that stage in packing when the house begins to echo.
A few weeks back, the ancestral eyes oversaw the signing of the purchase-and-sale agreement on our house, a contract with genial neighbors Doug and Becky, whose daughter, Alice, is a playmate of Ariel, our youngest. Alice is getting Ariel's bed, sandbox, and swing set out of this deal. Doug and Becky get the house and a Victorian sofa, the item that brought them to the house in the first place: They came to buy the sofa and, essentially, left with the sofa and the house.
The Rutherfords have looked on as the surrounding pictures and family photographs were removed from the walls, the carpets were cleaned and rolled, and book after book was sold to the used bookstore. Each time I remove an object from display on our walls here, I automatically think of its intended location in the next house. Thus we live in an odd simultaneity: Everything has an identity of both going to and coming from, including us.
Packing is archaeology, as we sort through developmental layers of clothing, giving away the overalls and sweat shirts that are finally, after three children, outgrown or worn out. And packing causes us to evaluate our belongings and form new judgments as to the nature of value. We can't keep everything! Spencer and Hilary's artwork from school, having had a turn at display on the refrigerator, then relegated to a folder in the basement, is sorted and categorized, each piece of work a benchmark in its ow n right and worthy of inclusion in the family archive. As I dig through the collected works of three children and their eight aggregate years of schooling, I realize that in this process kindergarten paintings or first-grade collages are being elevated to the level of artifact. It's no longer simply "Hilary's painting," but a portrait of the artist as a young girl.
The realization places a lot of pressure on the archivist, particularly since I am still holding onto the kindergarten paintings my parents saved! So Spencer's painted-shoe sculpture from kindergarten must remain in the permanent collection, but notes from my 11th-grade English class really ought to be discarded. College notes? Harder to decide. You never know when Professor Turlish's comments on the teleological-design argument in "Moby Dick" will again be vital. And my freshman-year essay for Professor
Tagliabue's course on Shakespearean tragedy is one of my benchmarks. In the end, the entire box of high school and college notes, and 10 boxes of paperback books, are added to the living-room ramparts awaiting the moving van. In all that we choose to bring we are creating a portrait of the family at several moments in time.
Patching the nail holes summons visions of the house's original condition. On that February day when we first toured the house, the study floor was lined with buckets to collect the water dripping through the ceiling. This room first served as our bedroom, which Lesley and I were to share with newborn Ariel. Each room had dingy, 1930's wallpaper, most of it peeling. And the dark and grimy kitchen had a cast-iron stove with an oven fired by kerosene, which my brother and I busted up with sledgehammers and
left on the street for the scrap-metal dealer. But there were 11 rooms, one for every member of the family, with a few rooms left over. We held our breath, looked past the superficial and took heart in the potential of the property, and plunged in to reverse the effects of years of neglect. This was our second such house project.
I spent the first week of our ownership whacking plaster and wooden lath off the walls, pulling down dropped ceilings, and rolling up the failing asphalt-over-tin roof. In four days, with the help of my friends Wes, a punk-rock T-shirt wholesaler, and the Reverend Bayne, we filled a 30-yard dumpster with the debris.
These walls are also testament to the years of steady refurbishing during weekends and vacations. There is new paint on every surface, a new roof, new shelves in the library, new ceilings in the kitchen and bathroom, new cornice moldings, insulation, exterior paint - we changed the outside color from Barn Red to Parson Gray. The only effortless part of the project was removing the wallpaper from the third-floor bedroom. We turned on the heat, one cold day, unaware that the radiator on the top floor was u nattached. The room fogged up with steam, and the wallpaper simply gave up and wilted into a pile on the floor.
Doug and Becky have had their carpenter come to the house to measure for the new bathroom, choose new paint colors, and prepare to replaster the ceilings. They are busy imagining where their furniture will go, where their paintings will hang, and which room Alice will sleep in. They too must inhabit a to and from.
This has been a cheerful house, not just an inhabited renovation project for "sweat equity." The ceilings are tall enough for a 9-foot Christmas tree, the rooms large enough for parades, a tent city, or a bicycle race. The three-story hall stairway has been the laboratory for physics experiments involving pulleys, ropes, and spherical bodies that, we found, stay in motion until acted upon by another force. We have had a gardner's yard with room enough for a beefsteak tomato glut, long beds of iris, lilie s, gladioluses, a quince tree, wisteria vines ... and two large digging dogs. There is a rope swing, a zip-wire, and a climbing structure, which awaits the addition of a second story, a project I had intended for this summer but which we'll leave to the new owners.
Though they are not officially owners yet, Doug and Becky have started their vegetable garden on our plot. They have a nice crop of snow peas climbing the fence, their tomatoes look good, and the spinach is coming along, despite some disruptive digging by our dog, Lou. We are moving to a yard with a fig tree, an oak tree growing out of the deck, perennial beds, and a house that is finished: We won't even change the color of the living-room paint.
AND so, with this feeling of living in two houses at once, packing up the present house is inextricably bound to unpacking in the new house, particularly since so much of what we have packed was chosen with the new house in mind. Lesley has made new quilts for the children's new bunk beds, and I have made new frames for the large wall hangings that will be mounted on the west wall in our new living room, opposite the new sofas. The Rutherfords will observe us from a new vantage point in the dining room.
We're packing the house of friendship too, and living in a simultaneity of closely followed goodbyes and greetings. It's a time to appreciate one another, rather than cast off or store away the belonging we've felt with colleagues and neighbors. All the moments fill a specially contoured niche that we bring west with the Rutherfords. As we consider this part of packing boxes, we anticipate decorating the new rooms in the one house we never leave behind and which we never finish building.