I had a lesson recently when I moved from my twenty-year home in Virginia to an apartment hundreds of miles away in South Carolina. The move meant a lot of changes. From a large house to a spacious but not-as-large apartment. From a charming old residence with a hardwood floor and a fireplace to an ultramodern place with the latest gadgetry. From a picturesque, pastoral spot to an urban, elegant location. I gave up something I loved and got something that amuses me and, I hope, in time I can get to love.
Even the bed in the guest room had a story. Two newly acquired friends, an unmarried couple, were visiting me but they didn’t remain friendly between themselves during the night. Unhesitatingly, the woman came into my bed to sleep. I considered it a little drastic, let her have my bed and went downstairs to sleep on the sofa. We had a normal, lively breakfast together in the morning.
The house had a charming balcony on the second floor at the back, but the balcony was so small that I was in kissing distance of any woman I invited to take a look at the wooded landscape. So I got an engineer to lop off the balcony and construct in its place a superb terrace with the thinnest rails that wouldn’t obstruct the view. Now I could invite more than one woman – several, in fact – to come and have a drink and see the landscape.
I had a comfortable velvet-bound sofa in the living room that I treasured and invariably prostrated on at various angles to read the New Yorker. It represented the last word in enjoyment and ecstasy. It all ended when my daughter entrusted me with her pet kitten, Sancho, when she went on a two-week cruise. Sancho promptly monopolized the sofa, normally the eastern end but the western end in the afteroon so he can enjoy the afternoon rays; he didn’t care a bit for the preference of the master of the house. When Sancho left, the entire burgundy sofa was embedded with Sancho’s white hair that no cleaning device could eliminate. I ended by eliminating the mutilated sofa itself.
I had entirely remodeled the kitchen and filled it to the rafters with crockery and cutlery, glasses and gadgets, and all manner of frozen food. Nothing would travel with me, except perhaps a plate or a bowl, a fork or a spoon, the bare essentials. The spectrum of special knives, the collection of cocktail glasses from Romania, the precious Japanese tea set, all would adorn some other kitchen. The granite counter where my girlfriends sat on high stools and imbibed my Russian vodka and ginger liqueur cocktails will thrill the granite-hearted person who buys my erstwhile home.
I have consciously, deliberately decided to scale down and proceed to my new home with no more than one-fifth of my current possessions. Most shirts will fall by the wayside, most jackets will endow charity organizations. Since I move to a warmer clime, all twelve overcoats and leather coats must remain behind.
All this I can bear easily though uncomfortably. What hurts me is to shed the hundreds of books, in nine languages, that I have punctiliously gathered over fifty years and carried, like an earnest wet nurse dutifully carrying a helpless baby, from the Philippine archipelago to the Hispaniola coast and then to Himalayan foothills and the Big Apple and New World. Shed a tear I must for the Nepali thesaurus crafted by a Canadian missionary, the Pali text of Dhammapada gifted by Sri Lankan mendicant, the Catalan classics I assiduously gathered in Latin America. I can’t take my huge collection of Zen literature nor my complete set of Bengali poetry, contenting myself with a sampling of Indian festival editions of journals. I remember Dmitri, a naval officer, describing his exit from Walter Reed hospital leaving his gangrenous left leg behind. I too am leaving a precious limb behind.
That is what things mean. At least, that is what they meant yesterday.
Now I look at my shiny new apartment, five hundred miles away, glistening in the morning sun, my disorderly packages strewn all across the floor, welcoming me to its brand-new portal, its smooth new floor, its gloriously generous windows, its bright newly painted walls, its reassuring promise of a new era, perhaps a new life.
I will be happy. I have placed on the polished marble countertop in the living room what always stood at the center of my huge, antique rolltop desk in Washington: the small framed photograph of my mother.