The Jaeckels managed to pack up their entire lives, get onto a small boat, sail across the ocean, arrive in a new country where German was not spoken, find some land, clear it of forest and make a home and life for themselves. I am stuck on a nineteen-page ethics clearance form. So stuck in fact that the thought of picking myself up and moving to another country seems attractive. I wonder sometimes if that is why people emigrate. The thought of leaving all complications behind and starting anew must appeal in some way. (Though I must remember that I am being paid to do the ethics form and that the Jaeckels are imaginary.)
Last week I was unpacking bits and pieces and moving furniture out of storage and into the house. It made me really happy, not just because the house is finished, but because these things are my history, my past finally blending with my present. Blithe Girl’s chosen bedroom furniture was bought by my grandfather for my grandmother as a wedding present. An oval red cedar coffee table was made by my grandfather. He also made the dresser with a cheval mirror as a wedding gift for us. The bedside table was made for me by my brother as a 21st birthday present. The palm stand was made in woodwork class by my grandfather around the time this house was built. I drink coffee from mugs made in his pottery. That storage trunk was given to us by friends in Minnesota that has travelled to Burkina Faso and back to the United States and then by ship to Australia. The desk my computer sits on was made by my great-grandfather and stores some of my great-aunt’s architectural rulers and drawing equipment. An elderly armchair was a gift from a long-dead friend with whom I used to argue about the merits and inherent problems of technology.
As I told the children stories about the furniture I asked if I had told them the story about one particular piece. Merry Girl answered in the negative and added “But I bet it starts with ‘someone was going to throw this out.’” I laughed but it is true. I like stuff to have stories. That’s one reason I never really felt at home in the United States. Stuff there had stories but they weren’t my stories, the layers of personal myth and history that build up when you collect generations of family things around you. I like to have these layers wrapped around me. To me they are the inherent value in things, not what they cost or some kind of outside merit. To others, this is stifling. My brother dislikes “stuff” and would like to live like some kind of ascetic nomad. Others don’t want to be stifled by the past and are happy to have everything new and shiny.
And the newest and shiniest thing would be to leave everything behind – family, possessions, land – to go create something for yourself. While that doesn’t appeal to me, at least as a permanent option or only in times of stress, that certainly has appealed to many. My father-in-law migrated to Australia based on the fact that it was further away from Italy than Canada. Others are attracted by the promise of riches (the various gold rushes, opals, diamonds, vast swathes of land), others by the offer of adventure.
The irony is that having shucked off the past like an old skin, many rushed to reproduce it in the new country, busily acquiring families, land and possessions. I plan to stay in one place and create a few of my own stories for my children to tell their children and grandchildren.