I didn’t know where to start. Clothes upstairs; toys downstairs; the pots and pans; the shoe cabinet filled with high heels, sandals, flip flops, shoes that were never ever worn; the dozens of sticky spice bottles on the kitchen rack; the dusty books and ornaments in the living room cupboard; the documents for insurance, taxes, CPF, children’s medical records; the cluster of toiletries, hotel-size bottles of moisturizer, conditioner, the peppermint foot cream I always planned to use; the instant noodles, biscuits, coffee and cereal; faded photographs; bunches of keys; files of research from old projects … so many fragments of my family’s lives spread out, tucked away, filed, hidden or parked on a shelf staring at me. Each object on their own meant nothing, but put together they were formed the shape of our lives – like Christmas ornaments that look flat and dull in a box but come to sparkly life with the significance of birth, joy, love and sacrifice once hung on a tree. These everyday household objects formed the amorphous, intangible, organic globule of life that is forever plodding along, evolving, discarding remnants and picking up new bits and pieces along the way, finally for us to look back on at the end of the long day and say, this is who we were.

Throwing things away seemed a good way to start. Out went the old magazines, books from the past that I would never read again (I had so many self-help books, religious stuff, parenting books … you know the books you buy are a reflection of your state of mind); the hideous ornaments – the dull grey-green-brown ones in uninteresting shapes, impersonal gifts or bad souvenirs that seemed like good buys at the time, when on a holiday high somewhere, shoes I wore when I was pregnant, that I associate with being flat footed with a wide stance; my old CDs too scratched and moldy to play anymore but which I still looked upon with some pride in my musical tastes (reggae, house, jazz, funk … wow I hung out in hip circles in the past) and just piles of papers – junk mail; children’s drawings, each of which is a treasure but when you have dozens and dozens some have to go, old bills, statements, charts (I kept meticulous records), things we printed out from websites like recipes, pictures of nice cars my son likes to draw, colouring pictures, articles … just sheet after sheet of paper each an imprint of a slice of your thoughts, your tastes, your living, all put together randomly, a collage of you.

I shoved things out in small heaps. Quite ruthlessly filled up black bin liners. I was clearing out, cleaning up, shaving off great big slices of dead weight, the detritus. It was like peeling dead bark off a tree trunk, strip by strip, bark that had become dry, thick and encrusted, to reveal the young, moist, sappy wood inside. But like some bark is needed to protect the raw wood, so I was careful not to throw away too much. I didn’t want to regret anything or treat anything with disrespect. Didn’t want to create too much of an empty space. Because space, unanchored space, can feel as vacant and loose as it can feel free, and there was so much richness even in the old CDs, papers, shoes and books that made up our lives, our past. It’s a fine line, between not getting bogged down and remembering.

The kids came over. Thrilled at the sight of boxes, rolls of brand new tape and a giant bolster of bubble wrap, “mummy can we help pack, can we help pack!” It was a game, a fun activity, to cut and wrap and stick and write with fat colourful markers. No philosophical ponderings from them! Hmmm! We got started rigging up the flattened boxes. Like pop up books they opened into shape along their folds, most of the time neatly but with always one or two folds out of line or collapsing that had to be pressed back into the right place. We taped the boxes so their bottoms wouldn’t fall out, the children taping over and over again, gleefully pulling and cutting and fastening, till the bases of the boxes were mummified. In a jiffy we had a small mountain of boxes!

Time to build! The boxes made cars, buildings, submarines, a cardboard city! Easily knocked over, the boxes were great for assembling and then – with a whoop of laughter – pushing or running into to see them tumble across the floor, ending up on their sides or on their heads. The markers came uncapped, and a flourish of little hands produced headlights of cars, doors and windows of houses, a pretty pattern, names, flowers, clouds, a funny face on the canvas of boxes. Then the kids climbed in the boxes and started shuffling themselves around, like runners in a sack race, limbless with only heads sticking out like wobbly dolls. And they fell over! Rocking from side to side as the only way to move, eventually one rocked too hard and tilted, landing splat on his side, which produced such howls of laughter from me and the helper, that the other two did it too! 

Finally the packing began. Bit by bit, piece by piece, each object from our life was removed from its dwelling place, and in the process seen in a new light, a different context, a different frame, like a hermit crab emerging from its shell, slightly new but still the same, and lovingly coddled in plastic, paper, tape, and gently lowered into its box. One by one. Not having done this many times, we made mistakes. We forgot to leave room for the cover flaps to close. Some boxes were crammed too full and had to be squished shut or things removed and put into another box. Others were too heavy, we underestimated the weight of books or bottles or forks and spoons and knives. We tried to pack things logically – towels with toiletries, all sports gear in one box, boys toys in one box, girls’ toys in another, but invariably some things got mixed up in odd combinations – office stationery with stuffed toys, photos with plant pots, socks and underwear with passports (well, you need both when you travel!). 

Several hours later we were done. Nicely disassembled. Into boxes – 52 of them. All packed and clearly labeled. “Jacob’s room”; “girls’ room”; “kitchen”; master bedroom.” The house was clean and cleared. The cupboards were empty, the shelves bare, the beds stripped down. Everything of ours was folded, wrapped, encased, and cocooned. Boxed up and waiting. Sitting squat, in between places, needing to be picked up. We too were waiting. Waiting, and ready, to move.

 

Packing for Four