Striking the Stage-Set of a Life

In 1957, E. B. and Katharine White left Manhattan to live year-round on their farm in Maine. In Good-bye to Forty-Eighth Street, EBW wryly compares the process of packing to:

“…trying to persuade hundreds of inanimate objects to disperse and leave me alone. It is not a simple matter. I am impressed by the reluctance of one’s worldly possessions to go out into the world again. I kept hoping that some morning, as if by magic, all…would drain away from around my feet, like the outgoing tide, leaving me standing silent on a bare beach.

He later returns to the tidal image, observing with resignation:

It is not possible to keep abreast of the normal tides of acquisition. A home is like a reservoir equipped with a check valve: the valve permits influx but prevents outflow.

Particularly challenging is the disposal of awards and trophies, which he calls “leeches.” His trademark wit is at its sharpest here:

…I sat for a while staring at a plaque that had entered my life largely as a result of some company’s zest for self-promotion. It was bronze on walnut, heavy enough to make an anchor for a rowboat, but I didn’t need a rowboat anchor, and this thing had my name on it. By deft work with a screwdriver, I finally succeeded in prying the nameplate off; I pocketed this, and carried the mutilated remains to the corner, where the wire basket waited. The work exhausted me more than the labor for which the award was presented.

I imagine that the nameplate was later disposed of Sopranos-style in a New Jersey dumpster where no trash-picker would make the connection.

Keeping the prone-to-digression EBW focused on the task at hand likely presented familiar challenges for Katharine, whom he describes as their logistical operation’s “strategist.” Weary of waging battle to “rout” their entrenched possessions, they take a break to attend the Fryeburg Fair back in Maine, where EBW might well have admired a prize-winning pig like Wilbur, his fictional creation of a few years earlier (1952). While the Whites were innocently indulging in all the traditional earth-bound pleasures of a country fair, the Russians were busy defying gravity with the launch of Sputnik, on Oct. 4, 1957. Somewhat coyly, EBW feigns disinterest in the dawn of the Space Age and its tantalizing new frontier: “I see nothing in space as promising as the view from a Ferris wheel,” but his unease with “the new race of moon-makers” is clear.

After their idyllic interlude at the fair, they return to the city and to complete the chore of packing, and EBW grows sad as the finality of leaving his Turtle Bay neighborhood sinks in:

I look out onto Forty-eighth street; one of every ten passers-by is familiar to me. After a dozen years of gazing idly at the passing show, I have assembled, quite unbeknownst to them, a cast of characters that I depend on. They are the nameless actors who have a daily walk-on part in my play — the greatest of dramas. I shall miss them all, them and their dogs.

It is a timeless truth that no matter the circumstances, moving is always bittersweet, as we cannot avoid projecting forward to the inevitable day when we will be moved to a final resting place, freed at last of all worldly possessions, and light enough to orbit with the heavenly bodies, man-made or Godly.

Personal Reflections:

I read “Good-Bye to Forty-Eighth Street” a few days after my mother’s death this fall, having spent the last several weeks of her life helping to sort out and pack up her house in preparation for its eventual sale. With Mom off-stage in her bedroom, drifting in and out of consciousness, my brothers and I triaged the contents of her drawers, shelves, closets, and cabinets. All the while, I kept feeling that I was striking the set of a long-running play, one that would never be revived. Its leading man, my father, had taken his exit more than a decade ago, and the supporting cast members, my brothers and I, had formed our own touring companies in Boston and San Francisco. All that remained of the “Devereux Revue” were the props.

Out of practical, financial and emotional necessity, I tried to adopt a Zen approach to the decision-making of what to hold on to and what to let go. Aside from letters, photos and a few items of sentimental interest, we let most of it go, trying not to feel guilty that we did not treasure each prop merely for its having gathered dust on the family stage-set. A few weeks after my mother took her final bow, an estate sale emptied her house of everything from antiques (“old brown furniture”) to outdated electronics to in-date canned goods in the pantry, yielding a paltry sum that seemed at once an insult and proof that an object’s value is almost entirely subjective.

The living room in my childhood home, circa 1980. The needlepoint footstool and pillows are in my living room in Cambridge.

The living room in my childhood home, circa 1980. The needlepoint footstool and pillows on the sofa are now in my living room in Cambridge. The trophies on the mantel, proudly displayed for years, remain only in memory.

Among the sentimental items I kept is a length of pink satin ribbon, which I discovered on the very last day of packing, tucked into Mom’s dresser drawer in a clear plastic bag along with a pair of white kid gloves, several monogrammed handkerchiefs that had belong to my mother’s mother, and a silk and ivory fan, which I surmise had also belonged to my grandmother whose childhood had been spent in Japan. Why, and how long, did Mom save that piece of ribbon? And what will my children do with it if I save it for them to find? Time will tell.


1 Response to “Striking the Stage-Set of a Life”

  1. 1 ERD January 5, 2009 at 10:54 pm

    Stuff… People used to acquire less, and what they got, often as gifts, was probably more meaningful as a result. Now people have more, move more, and perhaps therefore they have more dread of getting more stuff. To the relief of many, the web may have made giving services easier than giving stuff. And, the push from charities is greater than ever to become the beneficiary for everything from birthday good wishes to Bar Mitzvah cash (charities usually get tithed). This trend toward giving services has probably made giving less meaningful, except on the rare occasion when the “right stuff’ is actually bought and gifted. At the end of the day, perhaps our lives are less rich by having more stuff with less meaning. Our heirs may appreciate this as an offset to having to deal with even more stuff – at the end of our days.

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