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Grandpa's Box

Grandpa's Box
Illustration: Shutterstock/Vector Pouch

On moving, minimalism, and the importance — or unimportance — of stuff

Years ago, in a theater workshop, we were instructed to bring in three items we owned that were important to us — ones that had a sentimental value and some sort of story. Dutifully (because if you are to get the most out of a theater workshop, taking it deadly serious is the only way) I brought in my three items: a Zippo lighter, a wooden pen, and my trumpet.

The trumpet was obvious. I had been playing horn since my uncle began to teach me when I was 6. It had provided entry to social groups in school and helped pay for my bachelor’s degree. The pen was a gift from a friend. It was handmade by him and given to me only four months before his untimely death.

The lighter was my grandfather’s. Smaller than a standard Zippo and with the praying-hands emblem on one side, this was the lighter he carried in Europe and Africa during World War II. My grandfather is a giant figure in my life, and this lighter was a reminder of that.

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The instructor had us all pair up. It quickly became clear my partner had not taken the task seriously. Three inconsequential objects. One was an Oscar the Grouch figure he thought was hysterical.

We were told to pick one of our objects and give it to our partner. We could not ask for it back. My partner handed over the plastic figurine without a second thought. I sat there, torn. For minutes, I looked at each of my pieces. Finally, I handed over the pen.

The point of the lesson, the teacher said, was that when we perform honestly onstage, we are giving away to an audience something essential that we can never get back. It was a good lesson, as it has stayed with me for 25 years.


Last year, my wife, Dana, and I hit a wall. There is a substantial psychic difference between a groove and a rut, and our groove had rutted. She had been in Chicago for more than 10 years working as a figure model, a standardized patient, and a bookstore manager. I had been in Chi-town since 1989 and had a résumé that resembled the scribblings of a lunatic. We were getting bored with the same old streets taking us to the same old places so we could do the same old things.

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We talked about moving to Austin, or maybe Atlanta, or San Jose, or New Orleans — or Las Vegas. Then we heard from a friend who had sold his home in Chicago and who was looking to move out of state. He suffered from some significant disability, so moving out by himself was a bit too daunting. The idea was that the three of us, along with his longtime roommate, Kelli, would move to Vegas; we could help make his life easier, and it would be cheaper together than apart.

I mean, how could we refuse?


As the movers opened the double doors of the giant 18-wheel truck, and three boxes tumbled from the top of a chaotic and crushing stack, I figured it was good that I was the only new resident present.

Three months prior, Dana and I had done our own version of Marie Kondo. We sold furniture, donated boxes of clothing, unloaded used books. Rather than getting rid of things because they no longer sparked joy, this was far more pragmatic: We were moving 2,000 miles. Most of it was easy.

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I found myself, in that minimalist mindset so popular these days, tossing out items I had carried for decades. Old yearbooks. Photographs that had already been scanned and saved. A bundle of documents relating to my long-defunct theater company. All told, we sold, gave away, or dropped in the alley about a third of our worldly possessions, which made the things we kept more meaningful. Some of it was sentimental, some practical. Everything was intentional.

Fun fact: Your stuff will be handled by local movers, workers in the warehouse, and the movers driving it across the country. None of these workers gives a shit about the bobblehead that Joe had made for your birthday with your head on a Superman body.

Which brings us back to the cascade of boxes and furniture that had clearly been loaded onto the truck with an almost criminal disregard for anything labeled as “fragile.” Chair legs were snapped, and boxes unceremoniously dropped with a thud on the concrete driveway.

I went to the crew chief, a large, smiling Serbian cat with a five o’clock shadow and a potbelly. “Wow,” I said. “Looks like a lot of stuff got damaged in transit.”

He got very serious. “A move like this will come with about 10 percent damage,” he said. “Anything damaged should be documented, and the company will compensate you for it.”

I smiled. “Just take a picture of it and send it along with a bill? What’re the odds we’ll get any money for it?” He paused, thinking about his answer, but I know the odds: “I mean, shit in one hand, wish in the other, and see which fills up first?”

He laughed but didn’t answer.

Ten percent.

Marie Kondo is a reaction to our need to pare down, prune our excesses, live a less materialistic life. In a time when industries are being disrupted and job security is more myth than reality, eliminating the things one has to carry seems essential. The nameless, faceless movers simply represent that dynamic and remove choice from the equation.


As we unboxed what was left of our lives in Chicago to fully populate our space in Las Vegas, the gravity of what was once there that is now here accumulates. The tiny black holes of what has been lost or broken pull at parts of me I didn’t anticipate.

The broken and now useless cutting board signals the memories of a hundred meals that are long since eaten and the camaraderie of those brief culinary delights; the missing digital scale still imbued with the focused training and weight loss that accompanied a chunk of my forties.

Some people take months to sift through their shit, unboxing just enough to get by and procrastinating on that other stack in the corner. But Dana and I are not some people. The task set before us was massive, but we were determined to clear this mess inside of a week.

Fun fact: An empty house seems roomier the more distant you are from it.

Within a week, we were 80 percent done. The remaining 20 percent became a bit of a sticking point as the stress had sapped some of my compadres’ will to finish. I was, however, unrelenting. “Dudes! We have 14 more boxes, and then I’ll get a storage space for the stuff we can’t fit in here!”

Part of my push was that right before the move, my mom had given me Grandpa Jay’s dispatch box from after the war. A small wooden box filled with his WWII medals, letters he wrote to my grandma, the straight razor he used in the field, a few of his elementary school reports, letters of commendation from his work on oil rigs in Oklahoma. I hadn’t had time to truly wade in and soak up the essence of this most important man. We still hadn’t found it.

As the unopened boxes dwindled, I came to grips with the likelihood that it was gone.

The last 20 percent became 10 percent, then 8 percent, then 5 percent, then almost zero. Heaps of discarded cardboard were taken to recycling. Boxes of crap we all brought but realized we didn’t need went to Goodwill.

One afternoon, as I was coming back from a donation run, I got out of the Prius and there was Dana, walking down the driveway with my Grandpa’s dispatch box. It had been wrapped in a towel in the bottom of the last box. I burst into tears.

Of all the lessons I learned in moving 2,000 miles across the country, this is the one that sticks with me: If you have something irreplaceable, take it yourself.


Twenty-five years after the workshop, I still think about that wooden pen, handcrafted by a friend long since passed. The last time I spoke to my workshop partner, he still had it. He always offers to give it back, and I always refuse. The lesson I learned then, and which continues to resonate with me, is more important than the thing itself.

Like our attachments to things, the archeology of our lives holds many lessons that keep coming as the things become increasingly abstract. It seems to me that our clinging to stuff we accumulate has something to do with our need for security, control, and a sense of meaning in the universe. It turns out that it’s almost never about the items themselves — but what the value we place upon them says about us.