Moving on

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(Host) Commentator David Moats has been contemplating an age-old question: what do you take and what do you leave behind when you move?

(Moats) For a time, when she was younger, my daughter collected caps from bottles of Nantucket Nectar. It was a thing to do, and she had a whole bag full of them. Now we’re moving, and she had to ask herself: Do I really want to move a big bag full of juice bottle caps?

They meant something at one time. Do they mean anything now? Or has the time of their meaning gone by? That’s what makes moving sad: We’re not just moving, we’re moving on.

We may be moving just eight miles down the road, and it may be an entirely beneficial move, but we’re also moving away from the past. Except when we lug the past along with us, as I do, in the form of boxes of old newspapers, reams of things I wrote years ago that don’t amount to anything, old photos that we can’t get rid of because they show the past.

As I was packing things, I came across an old scrapbook that belonged to my grandmother. Here she was, a young woman living in a tiny mountain town at the edge of the wilderness in Idaho, and the cover of her scrapbook depicted elegant courtiers from Versailles. Inside I found a lock of her hair. It was beautiful golden blond. I never even knew she was blond. The scrapbook contained pictures of my grandmother, sage brush just beyond the borders of her neat yard, holding up her infant son, my father.

So we take the past along with us when we move. When we disassemble our households, we discover how we have surrounded ourselves with a whole web of meaning. The framed photos and the paintings on the walls are not just decoration. They are a statement about who we are.

And day by day as we live our lives, we take comfort in being surrounded by the world of meaning we have built. And it comes apart so easily. Down come the photos and into boxes, piled on top of one another. But that one was given to me by an old friend. That one I framed after my father died. All these meanings, stored away until it’s time to unpack them and find new ways to express ourselves.

It’s no surprise that whenever you see people wading into the wreckage of their homes after a hurricane or a fire or a bombing run, they’re busy pulling out old photos. “See?” they seem to say. “This is who we are.”

As I reassemble my household in the new place, I will have to figure out the meanings of things again. That old Grandma Moses print that was in the upstairs hall? I liked it once, and it had a kind of meaning. Does it mean as much anymore? Or has it become a part of the past, like the juice bottle caps, something to look at and let go of?

Against the passage of time, we hold onto things, but it doesn’t stop the passage of time. It makes it all the more poignant. As poignant as that lock of golden hair, clipped in Challis, Idaho, and rediscovered 86 years later in Vermont.

This is David Moats in Middlebury.

David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pultizer Prize for editorial writing. He spoke from studios at Middlebury College.

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