I can’t cook or garden or carry a tune, but by God, I can pack lightly.
See that woman with an overnight case? She’s going on a two-week trip. She has discipline. She knows how to pack. She hates to carry much weight. She also always carries her tiny luggage on-board, since her luggage was once permanently lost in transit. This tragic occurrence has, cruelly, never been forgotten by her husband, who has only to raise his eyebrows to indicate how sadly inadequate and amateurish any bag-checking traveler is. Turn the bag over and trouble will follow you, even if your bag doesn’t.
So why is this same woman, who has the upper-body strength of, roughly, a canary to be seen pathetically lugging around a bloated suitcase? Because she miscalculated, big time. Cleaning out her closets in New York, packing clothes into boxes, she simply left too many clothes to schlep and now needs a sherpa.
Oh, well, enough with the third person. I have no idea where I was going with it, anyway. (Or do I mean, where she was going?)
Anyway, I’m in Charlottesville, Virginia, where my husband and I once lived 30 years ago and where our daughter was born in a hospital named after Thomas Jefferson’s wife. Returning to a place where you once lived is, for me, highly emotional. Unlike my sentiment-impaired husband, the luggage-toter (who’s in England, anyway), I feel clobbered at every turn by my memories. Here’s where we almost stopped on the way to the hospital the day our daughter was born. Here’s where we used to drink. There’s where I used to work and almost lost my mind. Tides of memories and emotions and pretty soon I’m halfway sniffling and feel as if I’m carrying around a dead weight in my heart.
There’s the life we lived — now so distant — and, in a certain fantasy mindset, the life we might have had had we stayed here. I have lunch with a friend who tells me she and her husband go to the downtown mall every Friday night to listen to music, see everyone they know, watch their grandchildren play and grow taller. Another friend, who calls herself locally infamous, is gearing up for a regional environmental battle; she knows and cares about the issues because she’s lived here for 30 years.
I see my younger self now and then, I could swear, wondering when she became me (surely not as abruptly as the switch from third- to first-person). You don’t get to see the slow, glacierlike changes in people and landscapes when you don’t stick around; your visits, at intervals of five and 10 years, give you more abrupt changes. Your own slow alterations have come in other places, too.
So I sit with friends and endlessly talk, continually amazed by how much personal information women retain about one another. Years ago, in Charlottesville, I met one of my friend Kathleen’s close friends for the first time. “I’ve never met you,” I told her, “but I know all about you.”
“And I know everything about you,” she said.
Here, now, we don’t know everything about one another. But we know a lot, know where the bodies are buried, know who bit whom on the thigh to stop her from fainting when she’d had too much to drink, know who won the bubble-gum blowing contest at a local motel, recall unwrinkled skin and higher energy levels and life stories that were just beginning. The rest — those decades in between — we try to catch up with by talking as quickly and as long as possible.
I get it now. You can’t come back to a place where you once lived without much luggage. Even if you try, it’ll be there waiting for you.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read one of my favorite posts about how you should keep your laundry secrets to yourself