31 May 2009

Do you need iiit?

Moving boxes in every room begin to collect our home contents. As I gather our material things — important, historic, necessary, uncertain, forgotten, useful, useless — the question tumbles through my head with compelling urgency, “Do you need it?” 

Each reluctant “yes” moves the object to an assembly line of newsprint-wrap, bubble-wrap, and careful settlement into a sturdy corrugated box. These old cartons launched their journey in Florida, floated by ocean freight to England, and soon will cross the pond again, this time bound for Lincoln, Nebraska, USA. 

Though purging our belongings does lead to some satisfaction, it is an unpleasant activity. I recall our Father’s oft-repeated mantra, the one with the power to transform any object, owned or coveted — into a state of uncertainty:

Do you want iiit? Do you need iiit? Can you afford iiit? Can you do without iiit?

If even one of these questions yielded the “wrong” answer from his impressionable children, our impulse was to be abandoned without protest.

Inside retail stores where marketing tricks tempted with relentless lure, Father uttered the refrain to us in a knowing, crooked grin, the kind that arranges one’s priorities into new order. So many times was the saying delivered, it still tumbles through our heads uninvited, over and over like Disney’s “Small World After All.”

My thoughts wander to my parents’ kitchen cabinets. Here curiously, this worthy citation seems malpracticed by its very endorser. 

 Take the mug cupboard, for instance, and the scenario that leads to its current state.

Our Father, in the company of our Mother, unexpectedly veers off-course inside any retail establishment. Here, dishes and cups in new designs — painted with nature scenes, unbreakable, made in China — catch his eye.

“Looook, Aliiiice... Let’s get two. For variety!” 

Mother reluctantly abandons the towels and meanders to the voice, mainly to terminate the alarming decibel extended to all shoppers. 

“Bedg-ch’ounink, Movses.”* 

Movses’ hearing-impaired ear is always turned to the side of unheeded exchange. 

“LOOOK, eee’ts very cheeep! On special offer! Abbo-o-o! Can you belieeeve it — buy three get one free! Aliiiice??!” 

Vocal crescendo peaked to maximum urgency, a quick trip out for shoe polish morphs into an unexpected bargain-thrill. 

The four questions unconsulted, the discovery travels to the till, into a plastic bag, and to destination hazard — the kitchen cupboard filled with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities so dangerously stacked only Mum can organize. Even so, cabinets must be opened slowly, cautiously like overhead compartments that shift during takeoff and landing. Here, objects of his affection become object lesson.

How effortlessly, intuitively we justify what we should have, why we need, why we do... Our discriminating minds programmed to believe opportunity only knocks once, and this one thing will make us more complete. By our very nature we desire better, bigger, smarter, newer... Until we amass a collection of duplicates, and hang on to things as fast as life itself. 

And what of the virtues of “less is more” which I extol? Principles of simplicity and other ideals by which I conduct my life and contradict it simultaneously? These lifetime collections, footprints of our times — “Do you need it?” 

Back home, the Seniors set their kitchen table with a different collage every day. “Variety is the spice of life!” Father asserts with his signature smile. 

Their cabinets are filled with odd and wondrous bargains — countless mini-collections of novel, shatterproof dishes and assorted cups of many colors. The set of matching china is put away for “special guests” while their table is adorned with a range of delights in bright plastics. And memories... The glasses we drank from when we were kids; the knife grandmother used to piece cold butter onto warm toast; the yellowing melamine floral plates in faded orange-and-brown that missionaries left behind — scratched, mismatched, indestructible. 

But there’s joy at their table. All the world’s coordinated china can’t buy that. 

I pick up the pink teacup and saucer my mother bought with her girls in mind, the one with a heart embossed in its base, and wrap it carefully for the journey to the other side. 


*“We don’t need it,” in Armenian.

31 March 2009

We are all given to each other on loan

Photo taken October 2008

Joanne Claire Elmadjian (née Pain)
30 AUGUST 1964 - 26 MARCH 2009

it is hardly fair to sum up a
beautiful life
in a few paragraphs
to honour an
ordinary woman who
has touched us in
extraordinary ways
- - -
Wife of my brother Alex, mummy to Aaron, 10,
daughter, sister to six, friend to many

28 February 2009

The sign

A devotional

It was the day before the big snow, more snow than this land had known in decades. Distraught over all manner of stuff, she hadn’t slept much the night before.

Morning came not a moment too soon. She poured tea, stared out the patio window over the rooftops to a small patch of visible sky and said, out loud, “I need a sign in the clouds.”

The notion was not premeditated. Words were thought and spoken in tandem. Surprised when she heard them she reasoned, I don’t do these things — close my eyes and point at random Biblical texts; forward emails and wait for undefined promissory miracles. I don’t expect personal signs from the heavens above or the earth below.

She cast the concept aside. And anyway, what kind of sign did she expect from this sky?

It’s a grey-dreary day. The heavens dull, thick, featureless.

But the unremarkable sky yields.

She blinks. Weary eyes play tricks, she thinks. She looks away and back again. Still there: An enormous outstretched hand with a little white cloud jumping (almost) out of it. The generous hand is open in a gesture of compassion while the elfin cloud leaps like popcorn frozen in time. And with so much vigor, it’s dreadfully close to bolting out. Farther to the right, a tiny demonish character sneers above the outstretched hand, but the beast is trivial in comparison.

Silly me, she thinks, if you want to see pictures in the clouds you usually can. With every remaining sip, she observes keenly for the next creative allegory.

But when the hand and restless cloud pass, there are no more clouds — only the overcast backdrop like before, a canvas without form and void.

A statement of condition. A caution, like a street sign that warns yield.

She didn’t ask for answers. She asked for a sign.

Now to stop jumping.