February 2022

Vox

Roosting

By Anna Goldsworthy
The trials and transcendence of packing and unpacking in order to move house

In my early twenties, when I left home and moved to America, my parents gave me a key ring in the shape of a house. It was brightly enamelled, like a child’s drawing – blue walls, a purple roof, a red chimney – and had a dedication engraved on the back: To our Anna to help you remember Home Sweet Home. Two years later, I carried that key ring back home to Australia, to a nuclear family that was in the process of self-detonating and that would soon be scattered everywhere. Over the following years, as I moved frequently, I came to lose faith in the concept of home. It seemed the best one could hope for was a temporary structure, made of twigs perhaps, or straw. But I kept that key ring until, eventually, I found myself once again in a nuclear family and, eventually, we bought a home. Within a year, that nuclear family also self-detonated: proof, perhaps, that such compounds are inherently unstable. In my mind, these detonations sometimes merge into each other, so that it is not always clear if it was one trauma or two, in the way certain historians suggest the two world wars were in fact the continuation of the same war. I remained in my exploded home with my two sons, now a triangulated family, and soon a cheerful one, to the extent that I sometimes wondered if I had conspired for this: to cohabit exclusively with children, untroubled by adults, like Peter Pan and his lost boys. But little boys grow up and acquire commitments on the opposite side of town. After six years in this house R is about to become a teenager, and it is time again to move.

I thought I remembered how to move, but I had forgotten. There is the physical strain of moving: that reckoning with your body of all the books you own, measured out in the muscles of your arms. And there is the emotional strain of moving: that reckoning with the past. Six years is not very much time at all, but it is most of a childhood, those years between toddler and teenager. There were parts of those years that I loved, and there were parts that I did not love. Both have teeth. I find a cardboard creation that O made for me when he was at kindy. It is a schematic house – a triangle on top of a square is all that is required – fastened together with sticky tape. He gave it to me at a shaky moment, when I was trying to remember what a home was, and I Blu-Tacked it to the inside of my wardrobe, because of course I had a home, and my home was them.

But the most taxing part of the move is neither emotional nor physical, but intellectual. It is that enforced audit of all the objects of your life, from paper clip to trampoline, which must be adjudicated according to multiple parameters, and then sentenced to live or die. I ask O to attend to the odd-sock box, where indeed most of our socks now live. He develops a passionate headache, and I laugh at him and he runs away, and so I shout out to the street that there will be no screen time for a week, terrifying all the neighbourhood children, and I hide his iPad somewhere ingenious, and then my mother arrives just in time to enlist him to sort out the kitchen, and I turn to the socks and develop the exact same headache. The socks are a metaphor but they are also real. There are no matches. The task is Sisyphean.

When we move on to O’s bedroom, he weighs each object in his hands, attuned to its personal story, the reverberations of its history. Pop gave me that card when I turned three and it would hurt his feelings if I threw it out. There is an animism in his care for his things. He picks up a large cardboard tube that has been floating around the house, which came in the middle of a rug, and declares that its name is Sticky. You can’t throw out Sticky. Sticky is like a father figure to me. It is unclear if he is joking, possibly even to himself.

R has a very different approach to packing. His bedroom is an archaeological dig of his sequential obsessions: pirates, soccer, the Roman republic, string theory, bodybuilding. During lockdown he developed an interest in the Roman general Sulla, and worked on a biography, drawing mostly on primary sources. He amassed a library of Suetonius, Plutarch and Cassius Dio, taught himself Latin and Ancient Greek, and clandestinely submitted scholarly articles to international journals. Now he wishes to sell his library. I think you should hold on to a few books, I advise. Don’t be a hoarder, Mummy, he says, but he agrees to keep Marcus Aurelius and Cicero. We sort through his birthday cards. I find a drawing of a tiger I made for him, in gold pen on black cardboard, and cravenly shuffle it to the top of his pile. Remember this? He glances at it and shrugs. Doesn’t really spark joy.

I’m learning a lot about my parents at present. I’m learning that although I always thought I was the one seeking approval, they must have hungered for mine even more. I put the tiger card aside with a few of my other cards, and once he has finished culling, I push them back towards him. He glances at me, amused. I wish to be less abject, but it can’t be helped. Okay, he says mercifully. I’ll keep one. Your choice.

We live next door to an elderly couple who are compulsive hoarders. Occasionally, when a rat infestation has spilled over into our garden, I have called the council to help them clean up. They never answer their door, and so whenever a soccer ball has flown into their yard I have extracted it using two brooms like a giant pair of chopsticks. If the ball is too far to reach, one of the boys has left a request in their letterbox. The ball is always returned – sometimes several weeks later – along with a sweet note sending their very best wishes. O refers to them fondly as the Horters.

I never thought I was a Horter. I have never been much interested in buying things, and yet somehow the things have come, regardless. They orbit me now: a swarm of tea lights and pseudoephedrine and dried-up textas and rubber bands. They pose great questions and are the source of much shame. How could we three require so much scaffolding? I drop box after box at Vinnies, and feel, fleetingly, what John Updike described as “the sweetness of riddance”. But I know I am just passing the problem along. It is clear that I must never buy anything again.

In the back shed, alongside the paint cans and rusty secateurs and daffodil bulbs, there is a large wooden crate that the removalists used to convey my piano from Melbourne. I pull a stack of mouldering moving boxes off the top of it and a picture slides out onto the ground. When I dust it off, I recognise it as a print I had once cherished, given to me by a student. It is a picture of a house, a home, with washing strung out on a clothesline out the front, and I remember that it hung from the wall of our rental home in Brunswick when the boys were babies, a home it seemed to describe, like a Russian doll inside a Russian doll. It is now blackened with possum poo and I place it aside to deal with later. There are emotional sinkholes everywhere; one must maintain a light tread. I ask R to help me with the crate. When we tentatively tip it to one side, the wall behind reveals itself as soft and furry, with four giant alarmed eyes. I have heard the possums thundering around the shed at night, but I never realised this crate was their home. They have chewed two possum-sized doorways into its back and furnished it with a bed of gum leaves. It is much heavier than I had thought, and I am worried that I will drop it and squash them, causing me to emit a sound of horror for which R finds it hard to forgive me. It would have made sense if you were getting murdered. One of the possums evicts itself through a hole in the corner of the shed and flees to the Horters. The other is too fat for the hole, and cowers against the far wall, suddenly homeless.

The following morning, I drop the boys at their father’s house so that I can spend the rest of the week packing. My mother is having a cataract operation. My dad has a sore knee. My sister has a baby. My boyfriend is sick. I am alone in my home, confronting the stuff of my life, and it is a profound experience. In the music room, my mother built me floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and they filled me with utter joy. But now we are downsizing and books must go. I hold each book in my hand, gauging our relationship. Is it a lover, a dear friend, a fond acquaintance, or can it be culled? There is the Anne of Green Gables I won in the under-nine colouring-in competition at the Walkerville Library. We have spent nearly 40 years together, and it is now time to move on from this triumph. There is The Yearling that my uncle gave me one Christmas, saying it was his favourite book. Every Christmas he asked if I had read it yet, and for some reason I never had, but I have carried it with me ever since to all the houses and cities of my life as a type of penance. There is Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House, by Cheryl Mendelson, which I read about in an article in The Atlantic by Sandra Tsing Loh, describing an entire generation of women who are not homemakers and yet long for a home. “No one is taking care of us!” writes Loh. “No one! And that is no small thing.” I imagined the purchase of this tome might fix this, and so I bought one for my sister and one for myself, but it didn’t solve anything. Each culling is a laceration, but we are moving on and surely this is progress even when it feels like diminishment.

It soon becomes clear that this process will never end, and I succumb to the decision fatigue reported by presidents and prime ministers. I am the prime minister of objects, determining the future of numerous scented candles. The objects of my life reproach me, like so many untended friendships. All of those hand creams people gave me that I should have rubbed into my hands by now! The apple-peeling contraption I should have peeled apples with daily! I consider every nerf-gun bullet, vampire costume, ancient memory disc, piece of Lego, unidentified remote control, Pokémon cake tin. I take a strong stance on the Tupperware problem as well as the odd-socks problem. But there is still the laundry cupboard, and the laundry cupboard is beyond me. At this moment my mother calls. What, the removalists aren’t there yet? You don’t need me then. I feel a great dismay. Please, please come. I’ve been on my own for days. She arrives 15 minutes later. What can I do? I gesture hopelessly towards the laundry cupboard and she packs it into a box. But won’t those cleaning products react with each other? I ask. They should be fine, darling. They’re all still in their bottles. In 20 minutes she has finished and I apologise for making her come, but in fact I’m glad she’s here. That’s okay, darling. I know what a job it is on your own.

The next morning the removalists fail to show, and so I spend the day conveying boxes back and forth across town, listening to podcasts, becoming enraged by federal politics. An emotional geography emerges. The empty house in the south is about endings and is not entirely a safe place to be. The new house in the east is about hope and makes me glad. Tonight was supposed to be my first night in the new house, but it is not yet furnished, and so I take a sheet and a pillow back to the old house to sleep. The last time it was this empty was when we moved in. O was three and improvised a song and dance on the living-room carpet. Up in the trees, the panther sneeze! Do the panther, ya-da-da-da-da-da-da! Childhood is so very short – but this is a thought to be pursued another time, when I am not alone in an empty house.

In the morning, I return from my coffee run just in time for the removalists and watch them pack my life into their truck like a game of Tetris. And soon I am in my new house, surrounded again by boxes. Do torches belong with thumbtacks or with umbrellas? Should there be a stash of pens in every room? Unpacking is as interminable as packing, but there is also something calming about the process: engaging with objects in the hand, feeling their heft and dimensionality, and then walking through actual physical space to file them – not as Spam or Sent or Drafts – but in the study, or in O’s wardrobe, or under the kitchen sink. A temporal rhythm emerges, of unpack, consider and put away. It overrides all the other rhythms, and it is only when night falls and I haven’t eaten all day that I realise I am in a mania. Even though the furniture has arrived, I cannot bring myself to sit down, and so I munch on some cheese and a bread stick, and continue filing: this for the pantry, this for the stationery drawer, this for upstairs. At some stage it becomes transcendent, like a supreme form of mastery. Never have I had such an acute locational knowledge of all the objects of my life. It is like that moment in Year 12 exam week when you know all the significant dates of the French Revolution as well as all the laws of trigonometry and can even recite the war poems of Wilfred Owen. I have my house memorised. I know my objects. I think of my friend with the labelling compulsion, who has a drawer in his study labelled “labeller”, and for the first time this seems a good idea.

By the small hours of the morning, I am almost unpacked. With furniture in it, the house is smaller than I had thought. My piano looks parked in, and my paintings have lost some of their grandeur. But the house is set in the middle of a block, surrounded by trees, and after a few hours’ sleep I wake to light pouring in from all the windows around me, and birds singing, and it feels as if I am roosting in a nest. Later today I will collect my boys from their father’s house, one of them now a teenager, and I will bring them home.

Anna Goldsworthy

Anna Goldsworthy is a writer and pianist. She is director of the cultural policy program at the Stretton Institute and director of the J.M.Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice at the University of Adelaide.

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