boxes…

Everything is transition these days. We’re in a new house this week and I am, once again, surrounded by boxes. It makes me crazy, being surrounded by boxes. I’ve done this moving houses thing now more times than I’d like to remember and there are pieces of it at the start of the process that I actually enjoy or at the very least, pieces I don’t hate altogether.

I love the process of purging, going through all the things we’ve accumulated, tossing things, dusting things off, wrapping things carefully and labeling them in the box. At about the 40th box though, I realize, we have a lot of crap. It’s off-putting and then it’s depressing and then I just want to lay on the couch and play Angry Birds until the feeling of overwhelm passes.

I love seeing the boxes stack up, all neat and orderly. “This is my life,” I think to myself. That stack of boxes is the sum of what we do here and how we spend our time. The trouble is, I always begin packing earlier than I should. Inevitably, the depression seeps in again when I look at the proud stack of boxes reaching up the walls and notice that having this many things packed has no impact on my everyday life. We have a lot of crap and the couch calls me to have a lie down so I do…because the couch is my friend.

It goes on like this for weeks sometimes and I become less motivated, less organized, more inclined toward the couch. It’s my past in the first boxes, it’s the dust and the extraneous stuff that’s been filling in the cracks all this time. Those last few days before the move, those last boxes are my present. Those boxes I’ve been neatly packing, carefully preserving contents, labeling, pondering, those things are all my past, that’s my margin, right there. The closer the move comes the more cranky I become, the more I am forced to live in the present, the deadline bearing down on me. The closer the move comes the more I am forced to place my present life into a box and I question everything then- can I live without this utensil? Can I make do with only one saucepan? Will I need this coat, this razor, this scrap of paper? It goes on like this day after day and the couch calls out but now, I don’t have time for that couch. Now, I’m panicked and scattered, parts of me in boxes, parts of me in desk drawers I’d forgotten about or in the back of the cabinet I’ve been avoiding for weeks. I become stingy with the boxes, cramming as much in as possible. My past is all wrapped up in newsprint and bubble wrap but the present get tossed all together, fingers crossed, hoping for the best. I begin to think, “this box I’ll take in the car with me for protection” to excuse the lousy way I’ve handled the present. The stack of “present tense” boxes, ones that I have to protect because of my sloppy handling, because of my couch lounging and angry birds, begins to out number the past, the carefully wrapped, the well labeled. I bark at my kids and I glare at my husband. I fail to grocery shop. I forget to brush my teeth. I let everything go because this is the transition, from one place to another and the vision I’d had of myself, being the calm and organized author of this move erodes until reality shows the harried and wild-eyed, desperate version of me.

It occurs to me now, sitting in the new house, in this rare moment of quiet surrounded by the boxes, just how inclined I am to treat the present like this all the time. I push is aside, I wrap it poorly, making it an afterthought thinking only of what lies ahead or what came before. The most vital and important pieces, the pieces that make this whole thing work have been tossed into the last boxes, the ones that I think I’ll pile into my car, fingers crossed and hoping for the best. They are the most transient things, the moving pieces of us- the school permission slips that need signing, the checkbook, the toothbrushes, the phone chargers, things we will need to move through the next part of the transition. In the middle of the packing the day before the move Henry saw me in my frenzy and he offered me a hug and I confess in that moment I nearly declined. In fact, I think I did say, “in a minute” to him. The nice thing about Henry is that he didn’t take no for an answer just then, he insisted on that hug and so I stopped, put down the boxes and the lists and the stress and took in that moment because this could not go into a box for later. I wrapped it up carefully, that present moment. I let it soak into me, storing that feeling in my skin and my cells and my frenzied spirit until it filled me up again.  I realized then it’s not the cell phone charger or the permission slips or the checkbook that are the essential pieces, the moving pieces, the vital pieces of us. It is this, this, this and thank God for that.

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nowhere man…

My Uncle Ed died this week. He was about 75.

It came out of nowhere but not really.  My mom’s older brother was always something of a mystery to me. Growing up he lived with his little family an hour or more from us. He lived on a stretch of farmland that I don’t think he farmed. He lived in a trailer and he had a mynah bird and a layabout dog named Max. It’s strange what I remember from those years. I remember getting carsick on our way there to visit him after his daughter was born. I remember the little store near his place was owned by a man named Ed Morton. He had a lot of beef jerky and soda pop in there. I remember when he and my dad and Mr Morton opened a paint manufacturing business together out there in the middle of nowhere and I remember when they closed it, amid unanswered questions and quirky circumstances.

I remember the day he had packed up everything, following an argument with my grandmother and moved his family away from all of us. We did not know where they’d gone. I never overheard my parents talk about it with our extended family or with each other. I suppose as kids we did ask about him, where he’d gone but I can’t recall asking, I can’t recall hearing an answer.

He was tall and always tanned in my memory of him. He was an imposing figure with a deep, booming voice and loose-fitting clothes. He always seemed to be pondering something heavy, even when he joked he appeared to me to be carrying the weight of the world.  He may have scared me when I was growing up but I liked him a lot. I missed him when he left Cincinnati under that shroud of secrecy.

After a number of years my mom found him and his family. I think she’d been searching a long time for her big brother. I think she missed him more than she let on during those years. She found him because like his father, his namesake, he didn’t have a middle name, just an initial, “B.”  She found him before the internet and without a private investigator. To be honest it’s a mystery to me how she came across his phone number listing in Brandon, Florida but she did and then suddenly he was found.

We visited him in Florida not long after this. They were family but unfamiliar. Uncle Ed had lost something vital, something strong. He seemed broken to me as I saw him through my teenager lens.

I had seen him maybe a handful of times over the last 20 years. The dates and the occasions escape me. My mom kept in touch. She’d visit him, talk with him on the phone. I saw him after his son, my cousin, Scott, died of complications from his congenital heart condition. I remember Uncle Ed had lost a lot of weight. I remember him shuffling around the house, uncertain.  After his wife died suddenly several years later of an aneurysm it was if more of his soul chipped away. He soldiered on though and I lost track of him again. I was steeped in my own life by then, my own family, my own struggles and joys.

I like to remember him best by the stories my mom tells. I like to think most of my mom staying with him while my dad was in Vietnam. My brother was young and my mom was pregnant with me. I like to think of him driving my mom to the hospital at Wright Patt Air Force Base when she went into labor with me. I like to remember that he worked at Wright Patt, that he was a rocket scientist, that he worked on projects for the government and that he quit, for moral reasons, I thought. I don’t know if that’s true but I like to think it’s true.

I like to remember that he started a strange, entertaining tradition of sending the turkey neck from a Thanksgiving previous, to one of his siblings and that the siblings would freeze it and send it back to him some time later. I like to remember that he told great stories, that he smelled like scotch and cigarettes and that as a kid it didn’t occur to me that this combination was unhealthy.

When my mom called me to say he’d died of a massive heart attack, we think (we hope) peacefully,  in his sleep, I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t feel sad or empty or at a loss. Uncle Ed had always been something of a nowhere man, a story we told, a memory we had, a ghost of sorts. In truth, he was lost to me long ago.  Writing this, at this moment, I do have a sense of the grief. Writing this today is a way of filling up that space I’d been holding for him all these years and in so doing I see how important his story has been to mine. In writing this I can see the space between the stories we tell, the pain we hold, the time we wish we had and things we wish we’d said, the people we didn’t know we’d miss.

Goodbye, Uncle Ed. I pray peace and comfort to you after a strange, disquieted life. I pray peace for all of our family in the wake of our loss. We will miss you. We always have missed you.

Edward B. Thompson