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On containment and closure

by brenda Lin


We are packing up the house we’ve lived in for the past nine years and moving to a smaller house down the hill. Downsizing had always been in our plans, though this is happening a few years ahead of schedule, because our landlords suddenly need their house back. When we shared the news with our three children, it was received with varied responses. The strongest reaction came from our younger son – the middle child – who planted his elbows firmly into the dining table and said, “I’m not moving.”


Moving houses marks a significant notch in the timeline of events for a family. Before moving into this house – the one we are about to vacate – we moved every 3-4 years, between continents, countries, then between apartments across town. My husband and I met while studying abroad in college; the early years of our romance were characterized by the peripatetic lifestyle of young people just discovering the world, the flurried exchange of hand-written letters when we lived in different cities, and after we moved in together, the excitement of always planning our next adventure, greedily accumulating pins on our map of the world. We were first a twosome, then a family of three, then four, and finally, five. When the children were little, they were mobile – physically and emotionally – easily adapting to a life of movement and change.


Nine years ago, we moved to Taiwan. My husband and I were both surprised by the freedom we felt when we decided this would be our last move. For our wedding program, I had chosen this line by Elizabeth Bishop as an epigraph: “Freedom is knowledge of necessity.” Instead of feeling like we were being tied down and tethered when we decided to settle in Taiwan, we felt liberated, knowing what we needed now was a home, and recognizing that we had found it, here in Taiwan. Nine years is the longest I’ve ever lived in one space.


When we moved into this house, our children were six, three, and 18 months. They would wake before the sun, scamper out of bed, eyes wide as coins and full of wonder. These days, the quiet mornings belong to me, as teenage and adolescent bodies cling to sleep.


Last week, while getting ready for bed, my daughter noted that this would be the first time she will remember, that she will be aware of, moving. She slid into bed, pulling the covers – her summer sheets that are colored like the afternoon sun setting over a lake – up to her chin. I turned off the lights and lay in bed with her. “So how does it work?” she asked. “Will we bring this bed? My sheets? All my books? What about my Legos?” I nodded in the dark, then named all the things in the house that would come with us. “Oh! We’re leaving the house – everything else, the important stuff, that’s all coming! Because this house, it’s just a house.” What she meant was, the house was merely a shell, what it housed inside – all of the material things that held our memories, all the evidence of the passage of time – that was what made it our home.



There is an obvious connection between packing and closure. Physically, there is the act of placing things in boxes and taping them up, essentially closing the door to a part of one’s life. For me, the process of packing, of deciding what will be contained in those boxes and what will be thrown away, is a lot like editing a piece of writing. Each choice you make alters the way the stories will be remembered, the way the stories will eventually be told. Each box is like its own chapter, containing characters and events.


I keep a box of the children’s baby clothes – ones that were given them by someone special, that they wore for a significant event, an article of clothing that jostled a particular memory. The box started bulging many years ago, so that I’d resorted to piling clothing over the box. This seemed a good time to whittle down these choices. My ambition is to make a quilt for each of them out of these patches of material, quilts being a physical form of storytelling in and of itself. In my mind it makes practical sense, too – much more streamlined to have a blanket you can fold and slip into a suitcase, than to lug around a box of old clothes. Taking out the tiny clothes the other day, I was electrified by the energy each article of clothing held – the memory of the kids’ round, taut, toddler bellies, the constant collar of dampness caused by drool around my younger son’s neck, the little polka dot dress my daughter was wearing in a favorite photo of my husband and all three kids when they were all under the age of five. Whose memories are these? Theirs, or mine? In many ways, I am curating their memories by choosing which clothes to put into this box, memories my children may house in their bodies in a deep, cellular way, but not in a verbal, narrative way. That is what I am doing with these quilts – constructing my children’s memories for them. I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, or whether, when I give it to them on their way out the door, on their way to writing their own stories, it will be, for them, something meaningful or a sentimental burden. At this moment, though, it’s an exercise of containment and closure for me.


Of course, the kids are old enough now to do their own packing, their own curation of memories and it is fascinating to observe their packing personalities. My oldest is a sophomore in high school who often begins sentences now with, “When I go to college…” His packing process is fast and efficient, the entire contents of his room can fit into four boxes, and twice as many garbage bags. In many ways, I envy the way he can be unsentimental with his things. It allows him to be free, knowing what he needs are mere basics. Maybe it is a way of making physical space for his imminent departure, so that he is not weighed down by his past as he forges his own way into the world.


My younger son, the one who vehemently does not want to move, lives on the other end of the sentimental spectrum, where every thing has meaning and is worthy of being saved. He is a creative and has shoeboxes filled with index card flipbooks, origami art, volumes of drawing notebooks and journals, boxes and crates of pencils and erasers and markers. He had to enlist my help to pack because there is just so much stuff to go through in his room. He looked at every piece of paper and seemed to relive each memory, furrowing his brow at times, or chuckling at other times and jumping up to step over piles of papers we’d organized to show me some comic he had drawn in the margins of a math worksheet. I am on his case a lot about tidying up and getting rid of his things, but witnessing the way he connects to the physical embodiments of his lived experiences, who am I to say what stays and what goes? He and I are alike in that we are record keepers – I write and he draws. What if my mother had told me to get rid of my journals?


My daughter, the youngest, is the personality median of her brothers. She is focused and proactive and was the first to make boxes to bring up to her room. As she packed, she became increasingly discriminatory in deciding what she would bring, because she was now aware of the physical space that each thing held. She understood that everything she placed into a box would eventually reemerge and would need its own place in the new house. She kept many things (some that surprised me, but by now, I’d learned to keep quiet), but also filled a few trash bags. She worked both independently and with my help. She simultaneously wants to stay and is excited for something new.


We read a lot of comics and graphic novels in our house and I am starting to consider closure in those terms.

Cartoonist Scott McCloud describes closure in comics as the “phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole.”

Let me explain. Imagine a comic strip. Usually it is made of four squares, or panels, containing sequential images that tell a story. Let’s say this is a comic strip about my family’s move. In the first panel, there is a drawing of a notice from our landlords saying we need to move. In the second, there is an image of my younger son with a look of disappointment and a speech bubble over his head: “I’m not moving.” In the third – maybe it’s split into three – there are drawings of the children packing. The empty space between each panel is known as the gutter. There is a lot that happens in the gutter – actions or thoughts that aren’t drawn out – which the reader automatically understands. For example, you would know that between panels one and two, my husband and I shared the news of our move with our kids, which then resulted in the image in the second panel, of our younger son’s reaction. The reader understands that, even though that panel was not drawn. In other words, what happens in that empty space is closure. In this sense, closure is less an end, a closing up or turning away, and more an active way of gleaning what exists in between, of understanding how moments are connected, how emotions are unfurled and ultimately accepted.


It has been a long week of cleaning and filing, of setting things aside for donations and figuring out how to dispose of old electronics that are now obsolete. It has been a long process of taking stock of the material things that make up our life and being horrified by the way those things have amassed over the years. In between, there have been countless moments of delight, as when my husband found the very first letters we exchanged, or when I packed a bud vase of paper flowers my daughter made, on which she had written, “a bokay of flwrs for mom,” or the pile of notes my mother has written me over the years when she is passing on her own things to me. It has been a time of self-reflection, but also incredible promise, as we each imagine our own opportunities for new beginnings, seizing this chance to tell our story with more clarity and fewer extraneous details.


The movers are arriving in three days. My younger son woke up this morning and said, “You know, I’m excited to move.” That will be the fourth and final panel of our family’s comic strip about this move. Something happened between panels three and four – my son may not yet be able to articulate what that was, exactly, but he knows that he is now ready to move on.


And that, is closure.


 

WRITER'S BIO

brenda Lin’s first book, Wealth Ribbon: Taiwan Bound, America Bound, is a collection of interconnected personal essays about family and cultural identity. Her writing has appeared in Fourth Genre and WSQ. Her recent work, on the intersection between text and textile, appeared in Sotheby’s and TextileXchange. In 2021, she published a bilingual, touch-and-feel picture book, Hope, that you can wear, inspired by her mother’s collection of children’s textiles. brenda lives in Taipei, Taiwan. Follow her at @hopethatyoucanwear



 

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