In the middle of January I return to Ithaca. In the last year the flight has shrunk from a day to scant hours and there is no great lag, of time or spirit. This is good, as I have come to carry heavy things, tables, books, and shelving. The weather is of a degree I am not familiar with in recent years. Shanghai freezes on occasion, but mostly it chills and drips, like Tokyo with worse insulation. Houston, yesterday, touched seventy eight degrees in the scale of F, a temperature completely out of place next to the word January in the mind of a child from New York. Still, I packed knowing the weather and am not surprised by it, shedding layers as I enter the house and pulling them on again to carry boxes and sofas out to waiting trucks and trailers.
I last saw this house in summer, the lush green of August that allows the land to flourish. It is a decade, more, since I lived here in the winter, and the hibernation of plants and people is one forgotten thing among many. The others come to light in boxes and odd drawers that empty into piles: give away, trash, keep and store, keep and take. The choices for each pile are not immediately obvious as books scrounged out of local sales over years go into a box destined for a similar sale. This is not a new process, the gradual parceling out of my childhood possessions. Every visit for the past five years has involved some small measure of re-evaluating and re-packing. By the end of this visit I will be down to three boxes, four, that are too heavy to fly with.
Yet slimming down my childhood collections is not why I came. The move is not mine, the boxes left in my closet are a tiny subset of what this house has stored for so long. The room I left them in is no longer really mine either, though it once was. The cat that prowls the halls late at night, asking for some favor of doors opened or closed, is not the one that I woke to on school mornings, rough tongue licking my face. My brother’s dog still ambles around the property, and I watch his aching joints, slow on the snow and ice, wondering what he will think of his new urban home. For, children grown, my parents have little need of this yard and stream, the rolling hills that surround, and the two cars that maintain this old schoolhouse in the countryside. Grown myself, neither do I, though all of us take our time, these last few nights, to walk the dog slowly up the hill away from traffic and houses until the stars shine bright. As we leave with a full trailer, probably my last visit, Orion sits above the roof, each point distinct, a level of crispness we will not have such easy access to again.
We can always drive out of town to see them, my father notes. And in that sentence is the central point. In many ways this is a move signaling the end of our automobiles. It is not the end of the automobile, which will endure for quite some time, entrenched both in popular culture and our own lives. But it is an example, just one point on a curve of human motion that is swinging back to smaller circles. Premature, perhaps, to say that the suburbs are dead, that cities like Phoenix and Houston, massive car-driven sprawls, will not continue to thrive. They will for many years, until the oil runs out, and perhaps beyond. Many years, I say, meaning 2030, the end-of-oil date in recent BP projections. Yet we do not pack this house as a means of defeating the automobile, or the mobile society it spawned. We pack this house, books and artwork, quilts and old costumes, because life is a transient thing. Despite feelings of permanence, people inhabit each space but briefly, even those who seem to have been here forever, old History professors and groundskeepers, families with ties to the Mayflower. We are in motion, all of us, and this house which held one family for twenty plus years was a home, but only one, as the term reveals.
In the twelve years since seventeen I have lived in fourteen other rooms, houses, or apartments. Some of them were but brief stops, some were places where I in turn welcomed scores of visitors over the years. The house we are packing, built more than a century ago by fathers from the neighborhood to house their children’s school, has held only a handful of families in the years since its repurposing. We are not the first and will not be the last. This knowledge makes it easier for me, understanding our place in the structure’s history. It is the only home my family ever knew, all of us together, and will remain so, my brother and I long since departed.
The new house welcomes, and friends arrive from all over to help settle my parents in. Some of them recall helping on their earlier move, all those years before, to the countryside from an apartment only a few blocks from this new house. I remember moving around Shanghai, my last apartment in ’08 near enough my first in ’04 that I could return to the dumpling shop I’d favored that first freezing winter. Despite the decades between, my parents remember the neighborhood’s appeal, as I did a world away. They return to it and are welcomed by a dozen friends who help unload, a good sign after so long.
We are all in motion, grateful for each home in turn.