Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Boxing day

It still doesn’t quite feel like we’re actually moving. Normally, with two days to go we’d be in a packing frenzy, but in a magnificent stroke of luck the new job pays not just for moving men but for packing services as well. So all we have to do is winnow and wait.

Busytot is well into the spirit of things. “Guys! Moving Guys! Guys put all our stuff on the moving truck!” he says, and then comes up with some random exception. “But not the eggbeater/ cushion/ stingray/ rocking chair…” Every day something different. I don’t know what’s going on in his head. Does he want to transport one precious item himself, or leave something behind as evidence that we were here?

After something like a dozen moves in the last ten years, I’m really really enjoying not having to box the whole house up myself. Anyway, it’s karma. We’ve done more than our fair share of packing and unpacking recently. Back in New Zealand last August, we had two major tasks to take care of, both of which involved boxes by the dozen.

First up, we helped my father-in-law move out of the sprawling old family home and into a smaller yet airier house in a retirement community. Then we had to address ourselves to the huge pile of boxes we had billeted in Aunty Betty's garage when we set off overseas – for what was meant to be a short trip – ten years ago. Despite Betty’s kind protestations that our cargo was no trouble at all, we’d guiltily tried and failed several times to sort it out and slim it down.

Months later, I'm still reeling a little from the sheer focus it took to first pack up and move one life, and then unpack and discard another, all the while walking the line between efficiency and emotion. Packing someone else’s stuff is always easier, so the first job looked to be a relative doddle. We hopped off the plane and hit the ground running with only a few days to pack up before the Moving Guys came.

My main task was to box up various papers belonging to my late mother-in-law, Shirley Maddock, in a roughly archival fashion so they could be easily stored and easily accessed when necessary -- and by papers, I mean a vast quantity of research notes, letters, radio scripts, book reviews, and an unfinished book or two (one of them a beautifully written memoir that Shirley asked me to prepare for publication).

It was a big job, not just because there was so much material to identify and sort into folders and file boxes, but also because the temptation to stop and read was so strong. I kept encountering fragments of history that came alive in my hands.

Provincial repertory theatre in England in the early 1950s, all gas fires, greasepaint, and improvised costumes. New York in the late 1950s, with loving descriptions of hats and department stores. The excitement of starting New Zealand television from scratch in the 1960s. Pictures of Shirley signing her books in Whitcoulls. Accounts of literary spats and scandals. Baby photos of my husband. Reassuring e-mails from the two of us dated September 11, 2001.

(The latter were among the last of the papers, chronologically speaking. Shirley died a month after that day, just two weeks before her first grandchild was born.)

Very late on the last night in the old house, almost cross-eyed from my exertions, I finally dug down to the last layer and found a folder of radio pieces that Shirley had written twenty-two years ago. Magically, the first page that came to my hand was an account of moving into the very house we were just packing up. She wrote, in words both nostalgic and prophetic:

There can't be many less enviable tasks than packing one's wordly goods and transporting them even a small distance away. I could never have married into anything as restless as the navy, a bank or a troupe of strolling players. On our recent move, four strong men with two enormous vans laboured from seven in the morning until the opposing hour at night and, as the last item – a clothes drier – had been manipulated, to the sound of graunching metal and splintering wood, through a doorway from which the door had been unhinged – I determined that never again would I budge until the children insist their parents go meekly off into an old folks' home. And the children can pack.

And we did.

Then, having settled my father-in-law into his new pad -- not so much an old folks’ home as a handsome wee house in a well-appointed community of folks who happen to be old -- we addressed ourselves to the other pile of boxes, lurking balefully at the back of Aunty Betty’s garage. Oh dear.

Ten years was exactly the right length of time, I think, across which to gaze upon our former lives with clear and impartial eyes. What we saw was a pretty tragic time-capsule of student frugality (and prodigality) circa 1993. Shonky old pots and pans. Threadbare sheets and scungy towels. Acid-washed jeans and too vibrant silk shirts and jerseys. The sort of things you think, as you pack them up, "Well, might as well; wouldn't want to have to go out and buy new ones when I get back."

But most of it by far was books and records. Books by the thousand, and records by the dozen. I barely recognized the owner of the book collection, whose name (my name) was inscribed in most of the books. This made it easier to sell them -- you’ll find many of them at the Hard to Find Bookshop -- whereas once upon a time you couldn’t have pried a single volume from my cold dead hands.

Some I saved: vintage children's fiction, now ten years more precious, as well as books I could remember buying (or obliging people to buy for me). As for the vinyl, we saved everything local and special, and turned the rest into filthy lucre. To my shock, the Marillion and Pink Floyd I had scoffed at all those years turned out to be a secret goldmine.

All told, we whittled the pile down to six small boxes representing our pre-1993 lives. After all that deferral and denial, it was much less traumatic than I had expected. I think the time lag made it feel more like sorting out someone else’s stuff, someone I knew a long time ago. And, perversely or predictably, it was exhilarating and exciting too -- like getting all your hair chopped off and discovering you’ve got fabulous cheekbones.

And here we are again, shuttling bags to the bookstore and the thrift shop, palming off old toys on younger friends, shredding half the contents of the filing cabinet, recycling my awesome stockpiles of magazines (there's a year's worth of the Listener for anyone who can pick it up before Friday... or indeed, anyone who can pick it up, full stop; heavy stuff, paper).

It is a grimy, grubby affair, all this packing and unpacking, shifting and shedding, accumulating and dispersing a caravan of stuff. At the end of it all, there is dust in your hair, dirt under your fingernails, and a little bit of grit in your heart. Yet strangely, there are exactly as many things in the world as there were before, they’re all just in slightly different places. Isn’t that one of the fundamental laws of physics?