I was still eleven years old when we moved away from the Bay Area, and I promised myself that when I grew up and had children of my own, we’d always live in one place. I promised myself that they wouldn’t have to deal with the self-consciousness, the uncertainties, the resentment that constant moving presented, all those things that I struggled with during those years away.
I remember that, for my twelfth birthday, three weeks later and in our new house, I received a copy of Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! from Somayya, a comic book from her brother, and a dollar bill from a younger cousin. A whole entire dollar seemed so much back in those days, when we siblings used to pool all our change together to buy Snickers bars and acidly sour, mouth burning Goosebump gumballs from the little market on the corner. Even a mere dollar was enough to make us feel wealthy.
But what I remember most about that first year away from the Bay Area is how bitter and resentful I was. It’s not that I appreciated the Bay Area and my hometown for what they were. The ‘big picture’ was of no concern to me. I was far too busy being heartbroken over the fact that I was leaving behind my childhood home, the half-acre yard and winding brick walkways, the prickly rosebushes and a fig tree with comforting branches that enveloped, the lines of silvery smooth eucalyptus trees soaring to huge heights. My brother and sister and I used to roll down the lawn, hold mock sword-fights, push one another along the walkways in a wheelbarrow, and preside over picnics consisting of chunks of cheese and unripe fruit. We built tree houses, foot-raced across the lawn, ran away from home more times than we can recall, and between us went through more broken bones, concussions, and bruises than an entire football team. And this was long before my fatherâs geranium madness started; back then, he focused mainly on the roses.
I hated leaving my home, and I hated my new house, too. But just when I learned to reconcile myself, to accept the new place as âhome,â to at first grudgingly and then more readily appreciate the sparks of beauty I found even there, we moved again. And again. And a couple times more.
Five moves in five years, and we ultimately came full circle, back to my childhood home and the memories it cradled. And once I was back, I recalled all those years of fervent late-night prayers to God, all those years of pleas that seemed to fall on deaf ears, if God has ears, that is. And I promised myself that I wouldnât take this place for granted again. In the past five years Iâve been back, though, Iâve taken it for granted time and again. You’d think I would know better by now. Sometimes I think of those old âMY-children-will-never-EVER-have-to-moveâ promises and smile indulgently, because the truth is that all those moves were good for me. I like the person Iâve become since then, and so I refuse to think of them as lost years. Change is good. So is progress. But the thing is, I can afford to be philosophical about it now. After all, I moved back, didnât I? If I hadnât, some part of me would have remained bitter and resentful.
Which is why it still surprises me that I can so easily take all this for granted.
Last Friday, I drove around town and asked for boxes from various stores and shops. My dad picked up some more on his way home from work. I stared at those piles of boxes stacked in the entryway, and felt the familiar sense of panic. One of those oh my God, here we go again feelings. And on Saturday, the packing started all over again.
The books were the first to go. I packed them slowly, carefully, gently, like fragile objects that merit special treatment. There were the five shelves worth of books from the bookcase itself, then the piles of more books along the floor and underneath my bed and even inside the dresser drawers. Down came the artwork, the posters, the paintings, the framed photographs. The garbage bag kept growing. You’d think that, after so many experiences with moving, I’d have toned down my possessions to only those which are the most important. But no, I’m still a pack-rat. A sentimental and nostalgic fool, that’s me. I found empty moving boxes, stashed away in some storage space, labeled Yasmine’s box in my fourteen-year-old handwriting, and more labeled the same from the year I was seventeen. I used them again, and the feeling of dÃ©jÃ vu increased steadily. I discovered the identification tags at the bottom of my hearing aid containers are still labeled with my address from eight years ago. Mind boggling, indeed.
What made it all bearable was the presence of the relatives who came to help out. Especially the cousins. Not only did these three crazy teenage boys strip the walls bare, shove the furniture around, and affably carry boxes at my brusque command, they also gobbled down endless platefuls of pasta, platters of sourdough bread, hunks of chocolate fudge cake, and cans of Pepsi as if there were no tomorrow. And they made me laugh. When I asked one of them to carry a box for me, he leaned close into my face and crowed, “How ’bout noo, you dirty Dutch bastard?” in perfect Austin Powers imitation. I couldn’t help but crack up. Needless to say, he took advantage of my amusement to repeat the same line about a bajillion more times at random intervals throughout the day. And like the easily amused crackhead that I am, I laughed every time. Later, I asked them to move my mattress and bed frame, and returned to find them wrestling across the mattress, pummeling the bejesus out of each other with taunts of ‘What now? What now, huh?’ Craziness galore.
And I guess it’s telling that I’ve been sleeping on bare mattresses for the past four nights, yet my books were the first things unpacked. I walked into this unfamiliar new room and saw all the boxes stacked haphazardly, and my heart did this nervous little trippy dance, you know the kind I mean? But then my gaze zoomed in on the boxes of books, and I thought, Okay, I can do this after all. Because, more than anything, it’s the books that have always remained familiar to me, wherever I moved. Therein lies my stability. As long as I have those, I’m all set. After all, I was the eleven-year-old kid who showed up at her new school lugging around a one-thousand-page hard-cover copy of David Copperfield, still on loan from my Bay Area library. My new sixth-grade teacher was so intrigued that she piled on the books, mainly the classics, but others as well. George Orwell’s Animal Farm was one of ‘em, I recall.
So I sat there on the ground, facing an empty bookcase, and tried to make sense of all my books. There’s so damn many of them, especially since I went through so many different phases in terms of reading. There’s the novels and poetry anthologies and short story collections, all in Urdu and German, from back in the day when I read those languages as fluently and voraciously as I read English. There’s at least a dozen more anthologies and poetry collections in English. There’s authors I have multiple books of: Robert Fulghum, Daphne du Maurier, M.M. Kaye, J.D. Salinger, Franz Kafka, Anne Rivers Siddons, Nathaniel Hawthorne and more. Tennesee Williams’s plays and Jorge Luis Borges’s short stories lumped right in there with Anne of Green Gables and the Bronte sisters. Kipling next to Jane Austen, Rainer Maria Rilke (in German and English) next to various Norton Anthologies, Emily Dickinson next to Homer’s The Odyssey. Shakespeare and Nancy Drew, Hemingway and Melville, Sinclair Lewis and Oscar Wilde, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift From the Sea. Chicken Soup books, Maya Angelou, and books that were required reading for various university classes, on multiculturalism and gender and selfhood, which I found too interesting to sell back. And biographies and autobiographies, and books underscoring my long-ago fascination with the Jewish Holo
caust, Anne Boleyn, and the American Civil War. And dozens more, probably, but I really should stop cataloguing.
Such an insane mix, which is why I sat there the first day and blankly stared at all the books, not sure where to start. Help came in the form of Shereen, who advised me to shelve all the books alphabetically (alphabetically! good Lord), and laughed, ‘You know what, your dream house is going to have a library.’ ‘No,’ I corrected, ‘my dream house is going to BE a library.’ ‘With an internet connection,’ she added. Of course, of course. But seriously, I’m so attached to all these books that I almost protested when Shereen made off with my German dictionary and determinedly shelved it into the reference bookcase. I did follow her orders though and shelved the rest of ‘em alphabetically, but it looks all wrong. It’s impossible to fit them all in one bookcase anyway, which is why they’re currently stacked not only vertically, but also horizontally along the shelves. As soon as I get another bookcase, I’m dumping them all out and starting all over.
And for godssake, it’s just that I’ve moved into a brand-new room we’ve just added on to our existing home, down the hall and across to the other end of the house, a room almost twice as large as my old one, and the hustle and bustle over the weekend was because we decided to repaint the entire house while we were at it. No big deal, right? It’s not a new house. It’s the same home I grew up in. But every morning I wake up with the panicked oh my God, not again feeling, my eyes straining to trace familiar patterns on the ceiling. Instead of a window that looks out to the sky and the lemon tree, I now have two windows, one looking onto the beautifully-stained red-orange fence, the other with an unobstructed view of the orange tree in the courtyard, the one that grows so quickly and hugely that it must be on steroids.
And the boxes. Good Lord, the boxes are still here and there and everywhere, and seeing them doesn’t help one bit, but I’m just too damn lazy to clear ‘em out, not to mention the fact that all the other rooms are still half empty because most of their corresponding furniture is in my new room. DÃ©jÃ vu mostly sucks, and you heard it here first. Although my clothes are hung in the closet, for the most part I’m still literally living out of boxes. I still don’t know where most of my things are. Everything is a guessing game, sort of a moving-day version of the annoying cell phone Can you hear me now? repetition, only this version is more like, Is it in this one? or in this one? or this one? or maybe not? dammit, where’s my miracle-bubble bottle? But at least I don’t have to look for my toothbrush.
And everyday brings a repeat of the same gut-wrenching test: Can I make it from here to there without tripping? Can I make it across the whole entire room without falling flat on my face? Is it possible to remove one box without bringing down an avalanche of five more?
The answer, of course, is, No.
If I could, then I would.
But because I can’t make it to my German dictionary without scraping my knuckles and bruising my shins, I shall have to give up that attempt in favor of freetranslation.com, which tells me that the correct way to authoritatively call out, ‘Release my camel!’ auf Deutsch is, Geb mein Kamel frei!
So there you have it.