Saturday, September 17, 2011

The House is a Nest for Dreaming: "Letting Go and Making Way" by Sarah Twombly

No matter what my step-father says, I am not a hoarder. Listen to my mother; I'm a nester.

Growing up, my family spent as much time moving as we did in any given house. A summer here, three years there, we were nomadic but mostly happy. Michael Martone writes that “On one hand we have a desire to be rooted, to belong—literally to be long—in a place. On the other hand, we wish to be free of those connections, to keep moving through.” The only attachments my family made were to each other, and to the things we carried. We packed carefully, more scared by the thought of our possessions breaking than of the move itself. Box by cardboard box, we arranged, organized and taped shut the contents of our lives, always neatly labeled for easy unpacking later on.

I have never been long in a place. One house for six years feels an eternity. I get restless, anxious to pack, to unpack, to have the fresh feeling of a new place, a new room, a new opportunity to nest.

A house never felt like home until my mother's school house clock had been hung in the kitchen. Even though the insistent tick tock, tick tock drove me mad, even though its hourly chimes were so loud they woke me in the middle of the night and on more than one occasion I tip-toed into the kitchen, opened the glass casing, and stopped the pendulum, I needed that clock to hang. I have more memories of that clock than any single house I’ve ever lived in.

My mother was the expert unpacker, but my father was the consummate nester. With three hours, a hammer and some picture wire, he could work magic. And every move he refined his skills, until the transition from one place to another was seamless. The photo collage hung on the wall of one house miraculously reappeared, slightly altered, on some wall of the next. We packed these pictures so carefully, each frame individually wrapped in a large sheet of packing paper, tucked in a box upright, not flat the way you’d think. Upright and face to face was sturdier, we’d learned.

My favorite photo was of me in my mother's lap the day of my christening. My mother’s cheeks are still round with the weight from her pregnancy, and my father is sitting beside her with a tired but joyful grin on his face. My brother stands between them, his head cocked proudly, as though fascinated by his new found status as the eldest. It is summer and we are heaped on the slope of a front lawn, one of the many I’d come to know. I don't know who took the picture, but I imagine my father set the timer and ran back to us before the shutter clicked, the way he would do for years to come. We have that disheveled look to us, even me in my white, lace bonnet, that comes from hurrying to catch the flash.

Like the clock, seeing this picture safely hung meant we'd made it through another move intact. Unbroken.
But over the years we have had to learn, every member of my family, how to let these things go. Clocks and photos and collections of every kind and creed, the flotsam we’d collected in lieu of a home became too much to carry, a comfort-cum-burden.

When I was twenty and my brother twenty-four, my parents divorced. They spent months amicably dividing their properties. No one argued. No one protested. Quickly and quietly the cargo of our lives was organized, packed, and shipped—to my father's in Virginia or my mother's in Maine. A few things my brother took for his new apartment. Others, like my childhood blanky, I brought to college for safekeeping. As always, we moved efficiently, like the gears in one of my mother's clocks. Our choices were precise and measured. In the throes of a move we were decisive to a fault.

A few months later, after the boxes had been unpacked, the goodwill trips finished, the castoffs hauled to the dump, we were half the people we had once been. Half the people living in half the space with half the stuff, and nowhere felt like home. We would spend the rest of our lives learning how to live and how to nest without the objects, those things that had held us together for so long.

It's been ten years. We have, my mother, brother, father and I, moved no less than four times each, and we are still learning.

My father's new partner, George, once gave away almost everything he owned—a mahogany dining table, a grandfather clock, a bed, a dresser, oil paintings, everything. It was liberating, he says. I was traumatized by the story. Before my father moved in, George's house was a kind of homage to Georgia O'Keeffe—a chair, a bed, and a pitcher of water on an Amish-style nightstand. He likes space. Breathing room, he said. I called it optical quiet.

But my father moved in and worked his magic, and now there are pictures and art on almost every wall. But not like the walls of my childhood. My father has honed his skills. Over the intervening years he has refined his aesthetic so that, with a single painting he can manage an affect that once took dozens. He no longer has a storage space brimming with ancestral artifacts too precious, too dear, to let go of. He will always be a nester, but he has found that the sticks and grasses at hand offer a freedom he’d never been able to find in a cardboard box. Even more surprising, perhaps, is that George has come to enjoy the whimsy of artfully placed bibelot, the comfort of a photograph.

My mother has had a harder time, her learning curve an elongated parabola, but she is making headway. Every year she lets go of something. Last year it was the stuffed animals from my and my brother's childhood. This year it was her house. She and Drew, my step-father, a man as reticent to let go as she, have been forced to find common ground and pare down, their new houses being smaller than their last. Unlike my father and George, my mother and Drew enjoy the melange of a wall hung with a dozen photos, the constant surprise of alighting on one image then another, re-remembering, rediscovering.

Someday I imagine my mother will bring our library of picture books to goodwill, but for now, they nestle on a homemade bookshelf in the basement where she can crouch and pull them out, one by one, remembering how she'd read them to my brother and I, and how, eventually, we'd read them to ourselves, over and over again, until the spines were creased and the pages dog-eared. She is the protector of things, the one who remembers, the one who will always have what you’re looking for.

There’s a fine line between hoarding and holding on. I find myself attached to objects, obsessed with them, really, as my friends will attest. I have a need to feel, to hold, to smell the relics of my life. These objects—the wooden buddha my brother and sister-in-law, AJ, carried across the Pacific Ocean for me, the clock with the face that says "Keep Writing", given by a dear friend—they inspire. They incite in me a deep-seeded longing memory alone could not manage. But I have seen objects, their cumbersome weight, bury the ones I love. If you want to hold on, be ready to sacrifice your life for it.

These days, living in a New York City apartment, my belongings are precious few. I have no desire to part with any of them, but when the time comes I will find a way. How else to make way for what’s to come?

My mother's school-house clock may still hang in her kitchen, but that picture from my christening has long since disappeared. And I like to think we’re all the better for it.


Sarah Twombly is a writer and literary agent living in NYC. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I first met her at VCFA as my roommate during her first residency. Instantly charmed by Sarah's passion, energy, kindness, and talent, I became one of her biggest fans.

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