Unboxing a Life
This week I moved for the 14th time in my adult life.
Since 2011, when a relationship ended and I left the house and city I had lived in for the previous decade, I and my belongings have inhabited other people’s homes. First, I landed in Texas, where I lived with a friend. Then I went to Maryland, where I lived with my sister and helped take care of our mother as Alzheimer’s slowly claimed her. Around this time last year, with my mother gone and no reason to be anywhere in particular, I accepted another friend’s invitation to come to Ohio.
I didn’t expect to fall in love with Ohio. I didn’t expect to meet a man and fall in love with him. And I didn’t expect to fall in love with a 150-year-old farmhouse in a tiny village very much like the one I grew up in and swore I would never live in again once I left it to go to college 35 years ago.
And yet, here we are.
For most of the last eight years, the boxes I packed and moved when I left San Francisco have sat, unopened, in attics and garages, barns and storage units. Without my own rooms to fill, I didn’t need the dishes and utensils inside them. I didn’t have anywhere to put the books and the records, or walls on which to hang the art. I unpacked only what I needed.
Now that there are rooms to fill, I’m opening boxes and looking at things I haven’t seen in a very long time. Nothing forces you to inventory your life quite like a move does, and looking at what I chose to bring with me when I left my old life for an uncertain new one is an interesting experience.
I remember getting rid of a lot of stuff when I moved out of the last house I owned. I didn’t know where I would end up, and I didn’t want to drag along any unnecessary items. Partly this was because there was only so much room in the moving van I drove across the country, but it was also because I didn’t want to be weighted down with baggage, both literal and emotional.
Going through the boxes feels a little bit like undertaking an archaeological dig. Here are the three boxes of scuba diving gear, used weekly when I taught diving in California but none of which has gotten wet since I left. The chances of using it in southeastern Ohio are slim, so is that part of my life—one that used to consume large amounts of my time—over? And what about the boxes of vintage cameras and film and associated paraphernalia, also untouched in years? Once, I took photos that sold in galleries. Now, the only shots I take are on my phone. Will I go back to it, or is that too in the past?
When I left California, I had no idea what my life would become. There was no plan apart from moving on. Many of the things I decided to take were, I see now, based on what I hoped it would become or, more accurately, what it would remain. I didn’t want to give up diving, or photography, and so I packed those things up and carried them with me. I didn’t want to let go of my notion of becoming an interpreter for the Deaf, and so I filled several cartons with books and other materials from the program I’d been enrolled in for a year, telling myself I would find a new program wherever I settled.
As the years passed, these dreams faded, particularly once I began caring for my mother and her disease became all-encompassing. Diving and photography and studying American Sign Language became things I used to do. They were part of another life, of somebody I had been once but wasn’t anymore. The unopened boxes were things I moved from place to place because going through them was both too overwhelming and because they were all I had left of the life I’d once had.
Now, I’m building a new life in a new house with a new partner. How much it will resemble that old life, I don’t know. Some of the things in the boxes are finding places in the new house. Others are going into other boxes, to be donated or thrown out. What I will make with what remains, I’m not sure yet. I’m a different person than I was when I first packed these boxes into a moving truck and drove out of San Francisco. But more than eight years later, I’m also not entirely sure who I’m going to become. ▼
Michael Thomas Ford is a much-published Lambda Literary award-winning author.