There is a smell associated with moving. Like most smells, it is one I forget until it is upon me with all its traces and associations. It is the scent of cardboard boxes, dust reluctantly uncovered, cleaning solutions, and persistent yet low-grade perspiration.
It is a smell from my earliest days, a smell that has changed its composition over the years. As a child, packing up for my father’s sabbatical in San Diego. We were renting furnished and were traveling with only the suitcases we could fit in the back of our car under six little feet. Yet, we still needed the boxes, to tuck our personal items away from the prying eyes of the renters who would be living in our Amherst home.
The smell was absent when I moved again, leaving my father’s house. It was a move unworthy of fanfare, a simple suitcase filled with threadbare clothes. We were off to camp. When, at the end of the summer, we realized we would not be returning, there was nothing more to go back for, and so the formalities of moving were dispensed with. We were erased from my father’s house and his life in the time it took to fill that one suitcase.
And so, over the years, move after move. Each time, I owned a few more things. Leaving my grandparents’ house. Each time the moves were a little more elaborate. Heading off to college from my aunt’s house. The smell built up, developed its complexities as my moves became more noteworthy. Apartment to apartment in college. I learned to assemble a stereo in less than two minutes. My first job, my first real apartment. My first order of business was helping the cat to adjust. Following J to D.C., then more boxes a year later when we moved in together. Security deposits, packing tape. I dipped further below the Mason Dixon line, shipping off to graduate school. I could fill out the change-of-address card blindfolded. Moving in with J part-time while we attended graduate schools in different states. I could write a comparative assessment of DMVs.
And then, the moves got more complicated. There were two of us now. We bought our first home, filled with starry-eyed visions of renovations and children, only to struggle to sell it two years later, moving into the house of our dreams. The house we knew we would restore and raise our family in. A house we rented out two years later to move to London, then sold when we found that once again we would be unpacking boxes in an unfamiliar place.
The moves are more complicated, and the first order of business is now helping the children adjust. But, the fundamentals have stayed the same. Moving is about erasure. One moment, we live somewhere; the next, the house is empty. People who were part of our everyday lives cease to exist, and we cease to exist for them. There is a woman I have passed every morning as I take Zach to school and as she walks to work. We smile and nod. On Friday, I will just disappear. Will she wonder?
As we leave this place, this place we have not liked, there is still a sadness. A knee-jerk feeling of nostalgia, perhaps. The smell triggers it, this realization that we are all erasable from places, from people’s lives. We are traveling with everything that really matters, the boys and their spare blankies. We all will remember this place, but it will quickly forget us.
The house smells of cardboard boxes.