A single small suitcase, my violin, and a doll that I clutched to my flat chest–that is how I left Spain almost sixty years ago. My parents carried one suitcase each, plus my father\’s violin and viola. We were going on a great adventure to the heart of darkness. And we were going to cross the Atlantic to New York, and then south all the way to Ecuador, by plane.
My mother had a special suit made for the flight, and bought a new hat. My father got a haircut. My aunts tied freshly-ironed red ribbons around my pony tails. PanAmerican Airlines treated us royally and issued us elegant blue-and-white flight bags, but they were adamant on luggage limits. Hence the single suitcase, and the single doll.
In my suitcase were a couple of dresses, some socks and underwear. But the rest of my family of dolls, the little terracotta Madonna that stood at the head of my bed, and the Spanish translations of Mary Poppins, The Wind in the Willows, The Jungle Book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Tom Sawyer were all left behind–along with my aunts and uncles and my four grandparents, not to mention the German nuns and the girls who had made fun of my glasses in school.
We were going, but only for a year. In retrospect, remembering the look in my grandmothers’ eyes, I think they must have known that we would never return to live in Barcelona. But we, or at least I, didn’t know that. We were only leaving for a year. We’d be back.
So when we arrived in Quito, and rented a house and unpacked our suitcases, we sort of camped out. Since we were only staying for a year, and all furniture had to be hand-made to order, my parents got the bare minimum. I remember a contemporary-looking but uncomfortable spindle-backed sofa. And I especially remember the kitchen table, made by a less renowned artisan out of improperly-dried wood, which promptly curled up at the edges.
When the Ecuadorian government, to my parents’ surprise and dismay, ran out of money to honor my father’s contract, they nevertheless kept promising payment “any day now.” Before we knew it almost four years had elapsed, and we were still making do with the curly table and a couple of dented cooking pots.
When, out of the jungle mists, the opportunity arose to come to the United States, I packed my suitcase and my violin and, leaving the doll behind, followed my parents to Birmingham, Alabama. There again we camped out for the first few years, for how did we know whether things would work out?
I remember going to Sears with my mother to buy some china, a couple of beds, and an upholstered sofa, less artisanal but more comfortable than the Ecuadorian one. Even though there were no more financial disasters like the one that had befallen us in Quito, it took us a long time to settle. When I needed a desk I bought a piece of plywood and screwed four legs into it. It shook and wobbled with every stroke of my pen–and that is how I felt too, kind of wobbly and provisional.
The ponderous bookcases and dining room suite, the four-poster bed and the marble-topped dresser that had been handed down to my parents on their marriage, their crystal, china, paintings and silverware, not to mention all our books, remained in the apartment in Barcelona. Eventually my mother had the bed and the dresser and the dining room suite shipped to the U.S., but by then I had once again packed my suitcase and my violin and gone off to get married.
Over the following decades I did accumulate a houseful of belongings, and though I never felt tied to a particular place, I did drag everything that could be moved from house to house and state to state. But now I’ve come full circle, and am almost back to the single-suitcase, one-doll stage. I have so far given away thirty-eight boxes of books. I have taken two carloads of pots and pans, including my beloved stainless steel milking pail, to the auction with nary a tear.
But I’m not nearly done. And as I close the flaps on one more box of stuff that seems to hold my past, it occurs to me that the exercise I went through as a ten-year-old, picking out which one of all my dolls I would take with me to the New World, prepared me well for choosing which objects will accompany me to the continent I am about to enter.