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Spiritual Growth Through … Moving?

A retired couple struggles with leaving their home of 50 years, but discovers change can bring happiness.
Optimistic thinking helped them leave the past behind; Peter LaMastro/Sublime Management
Credit: ©Peter LaMastro

I stood looking out the kitchen window wondering how John and I could ever leave this house.

We’d lived here for 50 years. There under the maple tree was the garden patch where we grew tomatoes that never ripened. There was the stump of the cedar we cut down to make room for our daughter’s wedding reception.

The real-estate agent was coming in a few minutes to help us “neutralize the place,” as she put it. “No personal things showing,” she’d instructed.

But everything in the house was personal! The mantelpiece where our three children hung their Christmas stockings. The shelves John built into a downstairs closet to furnish a bedroom for my mother.

With every room I entered came some stab of impending loss. The night before, as I lay in bed, it had been the sound of rain on the roof. In an apartment we won’t have a roof, just another apartment above us.

Moving meant everything would change. And the most painful change of all, living many miles from long-time friends and familiar surroundings.

There was no doubt in my mind, with both of us in our eighties, that we were making the right decision to move from New York to Massachusetts, where we’d be near family. Why was it so much easier to make up your mind than to make up your emotions?

The doorbell rang. The real-estate agent was very young, very blonde and wore very high heels. She’d brought a pink brochure titled “Preparing Your House for Sale” and a stack of cardboard sheets that could be folded into boxes. With a small camera she made a rapid and, it seemed to me, faintly disapproving inventory of each room.

For the next several days, brochure in hand, John and I stripped surfaces of ornaments and family photos, cleared the clutter of appliances from the kitchen counter, emptied closets, filled the boxes and hauled everything down to the basement.

Change, it was clear, didn’t wait for the actual move itself. Already it was like living in a strange place. We couldn’t find anything, not even the extra blankets we needed when the temperature dropped. They had to be in a box somewhere…

We repainted the front porch (page three of the brochure: “Make your entryway inviting”). I went to the garden shop and bought a basket of petunias to hang outside the front door, but John had ripped out the old nail when painting. Nails and hammer were in his tool room in the basement, now crammed floor to ceiling with those cardboard boxes. After rummaging among them for an hour, John drove to the hardware store.

“We can’t sell you one nail,” the clerk told him. “They come in one-pound boxes.” The store owner overheard. Because John has bought things there for years (another stab—leaving old relationships!), the owner discovered an item that “just popped out of the box,” and John came triumphantly home with a single nail. (He used his shoe for a hammer.)

Among the things we couldn’t find, the hardest to cope with were missing papers. “If you could clear off your desks a little…” the agent had advised after a shuddering glance at rooms cluttered with magazines, notebooks, files, folders, correspondence. “You could also straighten the bookcases,” she added.

I followed her reproachful gaze to shelves where books were wedged behind books, balanced on top of books or cluttered on the floor.

We filled more boxes with books, papers and office supplies. It took hours to get them all down to the basement, and more hours afterward trying to locate a particular address or just a paper clip.

My office, it was true, looked nice. For the first time in years I could see the wood on my desktop. Instead of files on the window shelf, there was a pot of yellow chrysanthemums. It was like a study in House Beautiful—and I couldn’t get a thing done in it.

I’d known, of course, that moving meant change—change of location, change of lifestyle. What I hadn’t known was that the old location would immediately change too.

It wasn’t just the “neutralized” house. The neighborhood itself looked different. The familiar streets, the grocery store, the Little League baseball field, they were no longer everyday surroundings, taken for granted. They called for attention, as though I was seeing them for the first time.

I’d understood too that moving meant downsizing. In the apartment we’d have only a fourth of our present space, so I knew, in an abstract way,
that three-quarters of our things would have to go. What I didn’t quite grasp was how many separate decisions it would take. “Don’t tackle it all at once,” friends counseled. “Do one room at a time.”

I started in what used to be our older son’s bedroom where we stored family records, photographs, never-used exercise equipment, oversized books, person­al correspondence, out-of-season clothes.

I spent a whole afternoon going through old letters, pictures (shoeboxes full of them), trip diaries, children’s books. It was a feast of memories. People, places, long-forgotten birthday parties. By suppertime I’d discarded seven photographs too faded to make out, a letter with a signature I couldn’t read and a corroded flashlight I found in a desk drawer.

In room after room I encountered this inability to weed out and dispose of things. I realized why. Holding onto things was a way of holding onto the status quo. A way of saying no to change.

Then came the day I was sorting through the bench chest in our daughter’s old bedroom. I pulled out a box of Christmas ornaments, the skirt for the bottom of the tree, the crèche our younger son made from clothespins…

And suddenly I knew—we’re moving all the time, whether we stay in the same place or not. I remembered when this chest held a little girl’s dolls. Then a teenager’s record collection. Then wedding gifts for a bride-to-be.

From the bench I caught sight of myself in the dresser mirror. I saw not the young mother I was in 1959, but a white-haired woman wondering if her granddaughter could use this chest in her room at nursing school.

Change, I saw, is just another word for living. So instead of fighting it, what if I were to embrace it or even find a way to thank God for each change?

At first my thanksgiving was mechanical and petulant. “Thank you, God,” I said through clenched teeth, “that we’ll no longer have breakfast on this beautiful screened porch.” But as so often happens when I start out with lip service, the thanks little by little became genuine. “Thank you, God, for all the breakfasts we’ve had on this beautiful screened porch.”

And what about this new awareness of my everyday surroundings? What if I brought it with me to our new setting and learned to see everything with this heightened perception?

Downsizing, doing with fewer things, maybe it could be a spiritual plus as well as a physical necessity. To divest myself of excess belongings, things that need to be stored, washed, polished, dusted—possessions that can easily possess me. Wouldn’t this mean a new freedom, a new spaciousness in my life to be filled with new blessings?

But then there was the hardest of all changes, leaving our friends. We began to set time aside for people that a busy schedule had too often crowded out. I found myself valuing friendship itself as never before, seeking the opportunities to say, “I love you. You’re important in my life.”

John and I discovered we mattered to more people than we’d ever imagined. I’d always felt sorry at funerals that the person couldn’t have heard the outpouring of caring and esteem while he was alive. Moving to another state was—unexpected plus!—bringing out that same kind of appreciation and affection.

I stood at the kitchen window again, looking out at a yard filled with memories. A very different yard from earlier years. Trees taller, picnic table long gone, grass grown over the scuffed dirt where the boys played ball.

If there’s a prayer God never answers, I thought, it must be for things to stay the same. The yard had changed as I had changed, and the move was offering insights to take with me into his marvelous ever-changing world.

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