What you can't take with you
Based on a true story, a little
Dawn comes earlier here, and evening later. I have travelled thirteen hundred and sixty miles to reach my destination--forty-four degrees, forty-four minutes north--and now in the lingering June twilight I am helping pack thirty years of memories into hastily-taped boxes.

For as long as I can remember, my grandparents have lived on this small farm, thirty-odd miles east of Salem, Oregon, and a universe away from the city life I grew up accustomed to. It isn't much: twenty acres of haphazardly-maintained fields, towering, gnarled trees older perhaps than the town itself, a river fifteen miles downstream from the dam that long ago broke its back. But this is a place of refuge, of sanctuary, where time itself seems to stand still.

It has always been, too, a place of senses--the howl of coyotes in the hills above the little valley, the bitter chill of the morning as it creeps lazily from the riverbed, the musty smell of the chicken coops and the taste of ripe berries, fresh from their hand-grown homes. In my youth, these were all of them novel--and for a child, the property line bounded heaven itself.

As we lived far away, I saw the farm--as I saw my relatives--punctuated by growth. Every new summer, the trees were a little shorter, the walk down the steep driveway a little less tiring, the water shallower. It was new each year, and the changes became magnified, like a film with year-long gaps in between the frames.

Magnified as well were the things that didn't change. Always, the same fond feelings for distant kin; always the exhilaration that came from making the turn onto the last gravel road. And the sweetness of the berries, as the sweetness of the visit, never diminished through the years.

It became an anchor. Since the first time I set foot on the property, I have lived in three states and two countries--have passed through kindergarten and high school and now university, the first of my generation--have owned five dogs, four cats, three birds, two guinea pigs, and a hamster--have seen the rise and fall of a dozen close friendships, and through this all was a single, magnificent constant.

It was on these dirt roads, far from the city, that I learned to drive. It was in the forests and the ponds, far from school, that I first began to nurture a sense of wonder at the surrounding world. It was on the banks of the Santiam River, far from the only person that seemed to matter, that I wrote my first heartache-filled letters to my first love.

Now, seventeen years after I first laid eyes on it, my grandparents have decided that it is time to leave my Gibraltar, a decision that I find puzzling. In my mind, they are as coupled to the land as they are to each-other--any one, lacking in any other, is fundamentally inconceivable.

They, however, do not agree. The choice to move was hastily decided but years in the making--I knew it was coming; we all did. A phone call on a Tuesday afternoon, and a week later I am standing, in ever-diminishing light, trying to find out what to make of an old cast-iron stove.

The past few days have been a whirlwind of activity. The house is small, but seems to have at least two larger houses packed within it, and everything must be sorted, catalogued, and mused over before it can be wrapped in newspaper and placed in one of a dwindling supply of cardboard boxes. Nobody, it appears, imagined that the material trappings of half a dozen lives could amount to so much.

And yet it has. Some of it is frivolity--a pair of broken, eighty year old lightbulbs, saved because of their unorthodox appearance, or canned goods socked away long before the invention of the expiration date. My grandfather and I blow three fuses before coming to the belated conclusion that an old marine radio may have a problem or two cradled warmly in its Gordian innards.

Much of it, however, is not. The stuffed animals, slouching languorously in a corner, have seen two generations now and no doubt long to see a third. Books, secreted way from schools and libraries now defunct, keep their wisdom sealed between hardbacked covers redolent with dust and worn with loving use.

Earlier in the day, I turned an old camera over in my fingers, rubbed the lens clean and looked into the aperture. What pictures had it taken? Along what roads had it journeyed, into what wildernesses had it trekked? How many thousands of words had it written? I almost hoped for film, but it was empty, and I set it aside. Eventually, it faded into a melange of other, like artefacts, stories bound up in things we can hold, can touch, can savour.

The inescapable conclusion that surrounds me everywhere, stacked on sofas and squirreled away in closets, is that I am not the first person to have grown treasured reminiscences here on the little farm. Any human dwelling takes on the psychic imprint of its inhabitants; this little home is no other, and the nooks and crannies abound with ghosts.

Here are toys no child has played with for twenty years, old and rusting and bereft of purpose. There sits a pile of vinyl records, long since relegated to obsolescence--silent a decade or more, still awaiting the soft touch of a stylus that will never come. In bland manila folders, schoolwork from a second grade in the late 1970s--once the product of hours of earnest effort, now languishing in the sad retirement of the memento.

The house was built three decades before, and my mother and her family were the first inhabitants. It's perhaps the most peculiar discovery, then, when I find that so many of the memories are not theirs. In jumbled bags are fifteen years of slides depicting the laughing, wide-smiled adventures of a man who died suddenly nearly thirty-five years ago and was locked away in these little images, never setting foot in the house his silver halide spectres now inhabit.

Once, he was my mother's father, but in the intervening years his silence, and her mother's remarriage, have relegated him to a second grave. He will not, I think, accompany my grandparents on their journey--they can't, or do not wish to, bring him along for the next stage of the ride. Nobody is certain, because neither one of them is really aware of where they are going. They have purchased a large recreational vehicle, and they say they intend to travel, though neither of them is really much for wanderlust.

It is an impressive machine, I had to admit when I saw it upon arrival. The size of a bus, long and white and shaped like a large bar of soap, it is new, and sterile. The carpets absorb the feet that walk on them, and it smells only of mechanical grease and newness. But it is, they explain eagerly, a house in miniature--complete with a little gas generator, a modern, working microwave, and surround-sound speakers. These are all of them, it must be said, luxuries that their present home lacks.

Of course, the farmhouse lacks many things, truth to tell--like air conditioning to beat back the painfully hot summers, like reliable cable service, like dependable hot water. It has tried for many years to make up for this by providing, instead, a foundation--but not all of us are in need of such a thing, it seems. My grandparents are eager to pull up their roots--eager to be mobile, to be free.

Were they forty years younger--my age, the age of my peers--this would seem an obvious choice, perhaps admirable. It's difficult to laud their actions, though. Two years ago, though they wanted for money, my grandfather decided he was done with working and retired. A short time thereafter, my grandmother chose the same path. By logic, by common sense--perhaps the first two things they packed--they are far from having the means to simply leave. But though it be irrational, even folly, they've tired of their life. Nobody could convince them otherwise.

And though I don't always want to, I suppose I can sympathise--sometimes I wish it were as easy for me to give up my old things, my old possessions and my old baggage. And they are right: the only things that matter have no roots. As long as they are both together, they don't need anything as base as real estate. It's a noble thought, and they have thoroughly soaked themselves in it; it flows under their words and carries like perfume from their very being.

They will be leaving--starting again, ceding this house to a new generation of occupants, a new family of laughter and sorrow and joy and all that our existence brings to us. A decade, two, three from now, my doppelganger will stand here, as I do, and puzzle over how to deal with a thousand disparate clutching elements of the past.

I will leave, too, a few days hence. My own farewell, I have come to fear, will be different from theirs, less buoyant. I am not a sentimental type--or I dearly wish not to be. But it's hard to imagine abandoning this safe haven of youth--where I first saw a dozen movies, first heard a thousand jokes, first encountered the stories that will be passed down through generations until they are little more than legend.

"You still out there?"

I look towards sudden torchlight and the towering form of my grandfather, startled--guilty, almost, at my reflection, as though I was intruding somehow on their renaissance. "Yeah. Just... trying to figure out what to do with all this."

His unconcerned shrug tells me all I need to know. "Just leave it. Not much we can do tonight, anyway, right? Might as well leave it 'til tomorrow."

So the spell is broken. It's almost dark, now, the shapes of the house's derelicts becoming shadowy, almost ghastly as they hulk, all too aware of their impending fate. It's then I realise that the time for mourning is past. We've worked quickly in the massacre of our history, the calculated preservation of a cherished moment, the discarding of one more melancholy.

And if one is too late, why dwell? When I arrived here, halfway between the equator and the north pole, there had been vibrancy. Now the house is empty--a shell, mute witness to three decades of life. It seems a shame that this might be my last memory, and I decide finally against it, making a promise to myself: if I can remember, six months from now, why I stopped to ponder here, then I've won the battle against time, and loss, and the monsters of forgetfulness.

I nod to my grandfather, tell him I'll be in soon. My hand falls on black stove, blacker even than the lightless evening. It is cold, like a dead thing, and I recoil. This is what it has come to--this is what we leave behind when, after a quarter-century, we shed our skins. I begin the walk back to the open door.

Haunting music, suddenly--a man's high-pitched, reedy voice singing music that predates the Second World War, old-timey melodies that would be out of place were they heard anywhere else. It's the great-grandfather I never knew, discovered lurking in a box of old tapes, telling us that we are his sunshine; that we make him happy when skies are grey.

The sentiment is keenly felt, but sunlight has long since fled the valley.
Kali Pikl
18.03.2011 - 9h25

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