By RJ Furth (August, 2010)

“I’ve moved over fifteen times nationally and internationally, and this is one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”

My daughter Jody was on the phone last week speaking to the manager of the company that was moving her from Denver, Colorado, to Kirksville, Missouri, where she will soon be starting medical school. Her words (I’m paraphrasing) struck many chords, some clear and sweet, some strident. One thought was that at her age I’d only moved a couple of times. Our family moved to the northern suburbs of Chicago when I was too little to remember, then lived in the same house for decades. I moved away to college in Boston and then to Colorado, but I had no furniture. Moving meant throwing a suitcase into the trunk of my old car. When I moved to Australia I still didn’t own any furniture worth moving. (Goodwill and Salvation Army donations reduced my possessions to a backpack and a few boxes.) Another thought was that I’d dragged my poor kid around the world, granting her the questionable skill of being an experienced mover. I then began to consider the many moves that I’ve done over the years with my family, the methods, successes and disasters, and I was inspired to write about the physical act of moving. For those of you who have frequently moved, this essay might dredge up some old memories, happy and otherwise. For those who have lived in the same house for years and years, you may be grateful for what you’ve missed.

This essay is not about the pros and cons of moving your family every few years. For those interested in the effects of a nomadic childhood you can read up on third culture kids. I know kids who moved every three years and ended up happy and normal, while others are total emotional wrecks. The same is true for kids I know who were raised in the same house on the same block in the same neighborhood. The effects of stability vs mobility on lifelong happiness is hotly debated. I will repeat a story told me by Pat McMillan, a high school counselor in Kuala Lumpur in the early 80s. Sandy and I were newlyweds curious about the peripatetic life of overseas teachers. I had asked Pat about moving frequently with children, which she did with her own family. Pat told a story about an old couch that had been dragged from Texas to half a dozen overseas locations. (If memory serves me, her husband worked for ESSO.) Her kids would always be a bit disoriented until the old, raggedy couch was unwrapped and placed in the family room, then the kids would curl up on it and feel right at home. To the McMillan family, home wasn’t necessarily a building, but rather familiar possessions, old acquaintances. This is comforting to those of us who have moved frequently. However, it also gives greater importance to those things you take with to your next destination, thus making the physical move potentially more critical. A move without loss or breakage isn’t just about economics – replacements and repairs – it’s about comfort and peace of mind.

Our worst move ever was our 2002 return to Denver from London. We had a stereo cabinet custom made in Malaysia that arrived in London without a scratch. The same piece arrived in Denver missing a leg. Not just broken. Missing. How the heck did they manage to break off and lose a solid, six inch leg? Jody had made five ceramic bowls when we lived in Malaysia. The bowls arrived in London without a chip. Four of the five were destroyed somewhere between London and Denver. Alan and I bought a cool chess set in Scotland. It arrived in Denver with 31 of the 32 chess pieces. I still use a toy soldier  as the eighth black pawn. I could go on, but the list is too painful. To add insult to injury (or breakage), one of the movers asked to use the downstairs toilet, the one without a window. It took a few days for the disgusting odor to slowly fade from the furniture and walls.

There is competition between Japan and Malaysia for the best experience. Our moves from both countries were nearly flawless: nothing lost or broken, polite movers, no foul odors left behind. The move out of Japan may have been the more amazing since the houses, stairs and doorways were by far the smallest. Anybody who has lugged a heavy dresser down a stairway knows how difficult it is to do. Now imagine a tall, narrow stairway with a 90° turn. Remember, the movers were not oversized college students or ex-football players, they were undersized Japanese. Even more incredibly, they kicked off their shoes when entering and slid them back on when exiting, never putting down the heavy furniture they were carrying. These movers were polite (as only the Japanese can be), silent and thorough. We still chuckle at the memory of reaching Colorado and  unwrapping a professionally wrapped kitchen trash can that  contained our Japanese kitchen trash.

All of our overseas shipments went by boat. The least expensive way to ship is to have your household goods loaded into large metal shipping containers along with other people’s possessions. This increases the risk of losing items and also means that your goods aren’t shipped until the container is full. Upon leaving Malaysia in 1983 we had a unique variation on this shipping method. During the first day the movers wrapped and boxed everything we were moving. Late in the afternoon, when the boxing was complete, every single item was taken outside and carefully stacked into a nearly perfect cube – perhaps eight feet per side. Have you ever seen one of those wooden cube puzzles that feels solid until you loosen and remove one piece, then dismantle the entire puzzle? Remember how tough it was to put the dang thing back together?  Our eight foot cube resembled one of those puzzles, and worked in a similar manner. The movers measured the cube, went back to their office and constructed a wooden shipping container of exactly the same dimensions. The next day they arrived with the empty container, dismantled the furniture-box cube, and reassembled the cube within the container. There was less than an inch of space between the cube and the interior walls. Amazing! We lost nothing and not a single item was damaged. I also remember one Malaysian move (we lived there twice in a total of four homes) during Ramadan, when Muslims fast during daylight hours. For the entire day, in the tropical heat and humidity of Malaysia, the Malay movers neither ate a bite nor drank a sip. They remained polite and professional the entire time.

I just got off the phone with Jody, who has unpacked about half her boxes. One lamp shade was slightly crushed. (I’ll admit it, I packed the shade.) Not a single dish, mug or wine clash sustained any damage. (Hey, I packed those too.)Yesterday Jody said the place didn’t feel like home yet, though she knew her new place would feel like home after a few days and with familiar pictures on the wall. Exhausted from Sunday’s twelve hour drive and two days of unpacking and settling in, Jody fell asleep on the couch at 8:00 last night. The L-shaped couch is her favorite piece of furniture, one where she has spent hundreds of hours studying, relaxing and snoozing. When I pictured Jody asleep on the soft green couch I thought of Pat McMillan and her story of the family couch. Jody is 800 miles from her family in Colorado and thousands of miles from where she grew up in Japan, Malaysia and London. Thanks to a successful moving experience, however, she is home.

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