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.
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.