My parents are looking for a house or apartment in or around Toronto so they can move out of the tiny but viewtastic apartment my dad’s boss lent them. I inherited all my scruples about housing from them, and those scruples drove me from Brooklyn to Blackawton before I was satisfied by my living space. So imagine how hard it is for them, in a city as casual about remodeling as New York and Toronto are, to find an apartment where they can relax. Meanwhile, most of their belongings are stored in Oregon awaiting a destination. This is also the first year my parents have lived without any children in the house, and they’re doing it in a new city and a new country. Finding the right apartment has significance beyond just “four walls, a roof and a welcome mat.”
During all this, my mom has struggled to ground herself. Yesterday she and I decided that what she really needs is her 25 year old cabinet-mount radio, preset to local liberal talk radio and NPR stations, with three unmarked, large gray buttons on the front and several dials on the side that you can’t reach… because it’s mounted under a cabinet. My mom is the only one in the house who could ever figure out how it worked, which made it her perfect kitchen companion. None of us could set it to the country or hard rock stations and forget to tune it back. The radio would really help right now. By bringing with it associations of time spent in her last kitchen, it might make her new kitchen feel like her kitchen faster then you can make a pudding-in-the-box cake.
I can sympathize. Ready to nest, I miss my quilts, my rabbit, my framed vintage postcards, my Urban Outfitters cloths. A few nights ago I stared into my closet in the darkness, clutching the comforter my boss had put on the bed, wondering when I’d have my prewar Nathanial Hawthorne hardcovers, Ikea lamps and little champagne glass with the gold rim with me again. “Don’t be silly,” I lectured myself in the dark. “They’re just things. Think of all you’ve experienced this summer because you were willing to leave everything behind. Which is more important, a night in an English pub, or your copy of The House of the Seven Gables?
And it was my mom who taught me this, when I was sixteen. We’d just moved into a tiny two-bedroom that my dad could only visit periodically while he worked in Anchorage. I shared a bedroom with my mom and as we unpacked she made it clear my eight thousand Archie digests had to go into storage. I wept like a toddler, sure I couldn’t exist without easy access to every issue of Betty and Veronica Annual.
Ten years later, she says she needs her radio and, though following her fearless footsteps has gotten me here, I need my quilts. At some point you have to stop pushing yourself and admit you need your damn blankie. But there’s not much either of us can do about this. She’s doing the Goldilocks thing in Toronto and I experienced a moment of near-panic today when the kids asked me where my house was. I honestly had no answer for them. My stuff is in Oregon and upstate New York, my loved ones are in two countries, my flip flops are here.
If they could have understood my confusion, one of the twins would have answered it easily: just get a box of cake mix. Toddlers make talismans of everything they own and recreate them hundreds of times a day. One of them carried around a box of “fairy cake” mix with him all day yesterday, and apparently does this all the time. He didn’t want to make the cakes, he just wanted to have the box with him and admire it from time to time. His sister reassures herself after being punished by putting on every skirt in her closet, one on top of the other. The other twin acts as though every stuffed animal she encounters on her rambles through the large house is a long-lost relative newly discovered. Each object, no matter how worn, stained, heavy, or useless, can represent something immaterial they can’t live without. The cake mix a box of sugary pleasure, the skirts a thousand happy parties, the animals familial love.
We continue to do this all our lives, to cling to objects not for their utility but for their symbolism, and often the symbolism isn’t clear to us even when we’re old enough to eat peas without spilling them on the floor. When I left the US, I brought the necessary clothes and shoes, toothbrush and face cream, laptop and iPod, photos and books, that I hoped would assure my comfort abroad for a year. I also brought a small plastic figure of Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. I bought the three-inch-tall Mr. Burns during a family trip to Montreal many years ago. I own quite a few figurines that have been with me longer, are prettier, more valuable, more meaningful. But somehow Mr. Burns was the one who got to come along. Why, I can’t say. He just seemed to survive move after move, all summer, and now he sits on my windowsill, rubbing his rubbery hands together.
I’d like to think the kids might be right about the fairy cakes. Your definition of home changes, your needs change, your surroundings change, but objects can’t. My mom may hang her radio under a cabinet in her new kitchen and dislike the reminders of Oregon. She may just not want to listen to the radio that much anymore. She may feel sporty and want to upgrade to a radio that works. I could get my quilts, my Hawthornes and my gold-rimmed glass and leave them in a box for months, too busy running after babies and wiping muddy pawprints off my clothes to bother with antiques. Meanwhile, we could have opened the box of mix, made the cakes, eaten them, thrown the box away, gone to bed, dreamed away our problems, and woken up ready to start again, with a new definition of home, a new talisman. This time, maybe with sprinkles.