My Chicago schedule did not include moving but what the hell. By my count, excluding moves made during college years, I’ve moved home 42 times. That includes changing countries six times. When the hotel at which we are staying mentioned that our lease was up—we had not anticipated needing to stay much into July—the irritation of a move was upon us, that is to say, upon me, because men and moves are mutually exclusive. Predictably, the jurors’ announcement that they were having trouble coming to a verdict coincided with peak inconvenience as I stood stranded amidst boxes.
Four months’ accumulation: books, magazines, legal papers, half-finished jars of marmalade, frying pans, vitamins, rolls of Scotch tape and boxes of staples, Band-Aids and Woolite and bottles of distilled water for the iron and steamer. Four months of half-life. We arrived in snow boots. Last weekend’s temperature was in the high nineties and the man-made beach next to the world’s largest water purification plant on Lake Michigan was covered with sprawling young flesh indifferent to skin cancer. Everywhere the evidence of life passing one by.
From the windows facing east I can see another 12 floors that have been added to the shiny glass skyscraper on East Chestnut Street since we arrived. The cranes on East Chicago Street have just about topped off a brand new building. I purchased half a dozen legal boxes to put all our odds and ends in and then another half-dozen and now six more. For the past three days I’ve sat on the floor hoping that my magnetic qualities would draw out missing fountain pens and reading glasses from under the furniture where they are hiding in order to escape the move.
Four months is not so very long but, as in all things, it depends. The BBC reporter just released from Gaza after four months in cap-
tivity must have found it endless. Most sieges, it seems, apart from the 900-day siege of Leningrad, have a lifespan around four months. The 12th-century siege of Lisbon that expelled the Moors and re-established Christianity was four months. Budapest’s battle in 194445 was 102 days. The 1870-71 siege of Paris by the Prussians brilliantly depicted in Zola’s La Débâcle was a week over four months. For my part, I’m slightly ashamed of not doing more in our own four-month legal siege.
Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in six weeks. Taken at his word, the 16th-century Spanish playwright Lope de Vega would have written 120 plays in four months, though his more conservative biographer, Pérez de Montalbán, calculated one act written a night. The driven Balzac would have easily written a sequel to his masterpiece Le Père Goriot in four months. He wrote from midnight to noon and saw every moment expended on other matters as writing time sacrificed. According to his biographer, Graham Robb, Balzac informed the younger Alexandre Dumas that “a night of love” costs “half a volume,” adding that anyway “no woman alive is worth two volumes a year.”
He has a point. I don’t have to look much further than our living room. My hus-
It makes its nest entirely out of its own hardened saliva. I’m not yet that make-do.
band works on yet another book, having written his newly published biography of Richard Nixon while fighting legions of corrupt lawyers, regulatory systems and the U.S. government in a corporate battle that should never have gone beyond the boardroom let alone a civil court but has ended up—as so much does these days—in a dispute criminalized. Give him another four months—and fewer nights of love—and he’ll have two finished manuscripts.
My attention seems rather more focused on externalities. When you’ve moved as much as I have there are certain rote procedures. I’m a nester, which means wherever I go I build a familiar structure. Birds, of course, can build their nests anywhere and out of almost anything. Tailorbirds, according to what I’ve read, sew leaves together, and the edible-nest swiftlet makes its nest entirely out of its own hardened saliva. I have not yet reached that level of use-it-up and make-do. My approach is more akin to those birds that out of laziness or necessity use any depres-
sion in the ground they can find.
My moves have tended to fall on the heels of a change in economic circumstance or love, though earlier they were the consequence of parental decisions. In childhood there is always a sense of excitement in a new home. After emigrating from the U.K., we moved to an Ontario low-income housing estate. Our moving arrangements were on the primitive side: belongings heaped on a wagon and pulled from Hamilton’s Tragina Road up to Eastvale Place. There sat the newly built house, a marvel to my eyes and painted eggshell white. After bomb-damaged London I had not seen anything quite so pristine—not a crack, window frames that let in neither insect nor wind, a boiler with outstretched arms sitting muni-
ficently in an unfinished basement. On the kitchen table, a radio bought on monthly payments played Jo Stafford belting out: “See the pyramids along the Nile” to our family standing bedazzled in the off-white kitchen just beyond Red Hill Creek in Hamilton’s east end. For the rest of my life my home requirements began with white walls and music.
Remembrance of former homes is a common theme in art and almost always painful: a bedroom in which we once dreamt or a view from a window evoking youthful longings. The reason, I suppose, people recreate familiar rooms in new locations. Hotel moves don’t really count unless you are moving more than suitcases: perhaps your hopes, and the only—temporarily—secure aspect of your existence. Still, it’s to a new room with walls as white and blank as those I remember, easy to enter and easy to leave. No traces. No stain. A lot at stake, perhaps, but absolutely everything to gain. M
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.