Life in a Box

Black Magic Markers and Packing Tape

The tops of the brown cardboard boxes had to be folded “just so,” flap under flap, flap over flap until only one half of the four folds is exposed. Looking for the cut in the large roll of packing tape, I take my index fingernail and pull back the sticky strip freeing it, then press the flap of tape down onto the side of the brown cardboard box. Sis takes the roll from my hands, lifting it over the top and pulls it to the other side.

The sound of tape releasing itself from the grip of a roll is a familiar sound that only tape makes. I press the tape down, sealing the box closed. Sis, with her left hand twisted in right-handed scissors, cuts the tape, remarking that she wishes for once someone would make left-handed scissors for her. With the large, black magic marker, Sis writes on the side, “clothes.” Being older, it was up to her to write the words of our belongings on each box as they would stack up along the wall of our bedroom.

We moved so frequently I began to name the different apartments and houses we lived in, written on pages in the notebook I kept in my head; The Cave, Alice, The Pigeon House, The Freeway House, The Creek Condo. Why we moved so often was unclear, but what was clear was the ritual of packing, unpacking, new friendship, new schools, new classmates…new keys for latch key kids; I often lost mine. What caused anxiety and trepidation was the uncertainty of how far away we'd move from Dad as the tape rolled across the boxes and our lives’ belongings were clearly marked on the side.

No Pets, No Children, No Rent

There were times when Mom would go out on her own looking for a new place to lay our heads down. There were other times when we would pile into the back seat of our black VW Bug and, in the heat of the day, weave up and down streets of the San Fernando Valley looking for the next place to call home. Often, a sign would be placed out on a lawn or nailed to the front wall of a building: “no children, no pets, no rent.” We would hide in the back of the VW Bug so they wouldn’t see that she had “children.” “Mommy why don't they like kids?” was a common question met with silence.

Me and My Big Sis

We would start the hunt early in the morning, Sis and I with faces pressed against the back windows, small triangles that would pop open for air. While parked in front of a building, we would wait in the car until Mom would come out from yet another management office looking tired. She would take her seat in front, light a cigarette, lean back and take a deep drag. The end of the cigarette would get hot and, as she sucked on it, the burning paper would close in on her fingers. The smoke would rise to the ceiling and move gracefully across until it seeped out a small crack in her window. “Where are we going to live?” Sis would ask. Taking a moment, she would look straight ahead, breathe deeply, turn slightly over her right shoulder and mutter “I am not sure girls.” Miraculously, with fortitude and determination, she would find our next apartment and, soon, the ripping of tape and pulling out our life would begin again.

Putting Down Roots

The instability of our way of life, the repeated pattern of nomads without a North Star seemed to forever form who we would be when we grew up and have children of our own. It would be years later in our early 20s, as my sister and I sat at a table having lunch at the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip where, over Caesar salad and ice tea, we vowed to do things differently. With my son just a toddler and my sister not yet a mother of three, we opened up about the unstable and often chaotic challenges that had faced us growing up.

One of our biggest transitions came when my sister turned 15 and moved to Dad’s and I followed a year later, looking for the stability of a real home. But I was bearing wounds that seemed to scar me for life, like abrasive cuts in wood, too deep and ingrained to smooth over. I brought with me the rage and wildness of my teenage years and so I lived with Dad just briefly, only to resume my search for inner peace, without my sister, until the arrival of my son.

At lunch that day, we spoke of jealousies of one another and of the weight and responsibility that our mother had put upon my sister because she was the oldest. We laid everything out on the table, like a book that had not been fully read, with words that had been missing and only then began to surface

Nomadic Life

How You Keep Score

Weeks ago, my sister started thinking about our lives and the different doors we had once lived behind. A single photo marks one such move, showing me sitting atop boxes piled in the back of our Toyota truck, heading down a new street. For my part, the only clue to the pattern was a stack of report cards I had been given years ago by our Mother. With only my records I promised to map out our lives. I sat at my desk the day before my 52nd birthday and, like a detective, began to piece together the many schools I attended, like trying to fit together pieces of a puzzle.

Our final tally was 12 schools for me and 9 for my sister.

Unpacking a Mystery

Given the instability of our educational experiences involving so many different schools with no clear through line from one level to another or even one subject to another and all of that combined with the instability of our personal lives in which friendships came and went, “homes” came and went, schools came and went, keys came and went, is it any wonder that I became a lost soul?

Putting Away the Boxes

My sister is now in Australia, and I'm still in California. We Skype about our lives labeled on boxes and reminisce about kids we once played with. I wonder if they remember the two blonde haired girls that dropped into their lives and that were quickly whisked away—Scott, Tammy, Coco, Cheri, Roxie, Jerry and all the others. We made unspoken vows to our own children to do our best to give them stability and to not pack them off to unknown destinations. We wanted them to have the same friends, the same schools and same set of keys. The same is not always boring and the same can be critically important to a child’s welfare. Our children now have true friendships and memories that are not reduced to boxes, tape and “for rent” signs. They will have a history richly rooted in stability, love and home.

Though my sister and I live on opposite sides of the world we both have found our North Star.

Side by Side

Posted in: Family  |  Inspirational  |  Lifestyle

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Connie Smith

Thank you for sharing your feelings. I understand the instabilities. I just wish I would have been a better mother and not had mental illness as a debilitating disease that kept me from being who I am now. I love you and your sister forever. Mom

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