Unpacking one’s possessions is a process of discovery. Or rather, rediscovery. I’ve moved often enough in my life, packing and unpacking many of the same things, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Each time I pack, I weed out items and vow not to let the pile of my possessions grow so much again. And each time I unpack I think, I’m going to read this book (these books) before I move again. Then comes the next move and I wonder, once again, how I accumulated so much stuff again and why I still haven’t read some of those books.
In the past, moving and settling in generally took a month or two, at most. This time has been different. I had been downscaling my possessions for over a year in anticipation of moving to a smaller house. Most of my books in my study upstairs were packed away early so that the carpet installers could move the empty bookcases easily. Downstairs I had packed up much of my kitchen equipment and stored many of my nicer books and pottery in the garage in order to stage the house for potential buyers. The house looked bare and impersonal, just the way the house shows recommend when selling. The early packing turned out to be a blessing in disguise because two days before my house went on the market, we had a fire which destroyed the kitchen and damaged the rest of the house’s interior with the smoke and heat. Many of my personal possessions were salvaged, thankfully, since I had already stored them away in the garage. Now, nearly one year later, it is finally time to unpack them.
Most of us collect stuff over the years – mementos, souvenirs, tchotchkes, ‘dust collectors.’ They may look like junk to some people, but to the owner, each one holds a memory of a person, place, or time. We may not think about them very often, but the thought of losing them can be painful. Now that my shelving has arrived, I can finally tackle the unpacking of all those miscellaneous objects so carefully cleaned and wrapped by the restoration company after the fire. I set them all out on my dining room table – a feast for the eyes, at least my eyes. Seeing so many all at one time evokes a lot of memories.
The oldest item – probably the Russian babushka nesting dolls; I got those during my first trip to Russia in 1977, back when it was still the Soviet Union and I was a college sophomore learning Russian. No wait, an even older object is the small red vase from Japan, one my father brought back after serving there in 1954. It was a gift to his mother, and when she died, he gave it to me as a memento of my grandmother. Some of the objects are relatively new – Shabbat candlesticks and all the other Jewish ritual objects are only about a decade or two old, but the mezuzot (decorative cases holding biblical verses to put on one’s doorposts) range from thirty years old (from my stay on Kibbutz Ketura in 1985) to seven years, the ones I purchased in Austin after moving into a house with more rooms than my previous ones. Then there are the gifts from the international students I taught during my California years. The origami bird from, of course, a Japanese student, the miniature tea set from a Chinese student, some pottery from a Chilean student, and more. There are souvenirs from trips to Mexico and Turkey and Israel and from my life in Germany. For a short time in my twenties, I had dabbled in needlepoint when a German friend had given me a scene of Jerusalem and some supplies to get started. It wasn’t very good, but I had enjoyed the hours I spent on it back then. I unwrap a piece of art that my friend and her then partner bought for me as they traveled through the southwest on the way to visit me in California. I can still picture the visit in my mind as I can picture all the people and places the other objects represent. Mementos, souvenirs, tchotchkes – dust collectors, absolutely. Junk? Certainly not.