© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.
The story of Joseph of Egypt holds special meaning for my family and me. If you dig out your Bible and turn to Genesis, chapter 45 with me, I’d love to share some insights into why, at 4:50 a.m. this morning, I sat bolt up in bed, turned to my hotel nightstand and switched on a flashlight to flip open to this, one of my favorite moments in all the written word.
You know the story. At this juncture, Joseph, now residing in Pharoah’s court and decorated as Pharoah’s right hand man, has revealed his true identity to his brothers, who have come begging for food during Canaan’s famine. Joseph, moved by the sight of his brothers (and especially by the sight of his baby brother, Benjamin), can’t restrain himself, and tells his brothers who he in reality is, the brother they had sold into slavery and into Egypt. He is the brother they had essentially killed. Now he stands before them — whole, splendid — a heart-stopping surprise. Their practical savior.
Ah, it makes me weep. If you read it, you’ll see it makes just about everyone else in the scene weep, too.
Pharoah himself is moved by the reunion, and tells Joseph to hurry and pack up some beasts, his little ones and his wives, and head straight to his father, Jacob, who is still living in Canaan, still mourning the loss of his favored son. Joseph is commanded to bring his family to safety (and salvation) in the king’s courts of Egypt.
Gorgeously symbolic narrative, all of it. But here is the verse I wanted to point out. In telling Joseph to get to his father, Pharoah adds, “And regard not your stuff, for the good of all the land of Egypt is yours.” (Genesis 45:20)
Regard not your stuff. Well, I’ll tell you, moving makes that one a bit hard. It is a stuff-loaded and stuff-loading sport, where you are forced to take literal inventory, measure, weigh, catalogue, photograph oh so darned much stuff. No wonder I can’t sleep, and why my overstuffed brain splits its seams, jolting me out of my slumber with the need write. Maybe, I think, writing it down will relieve some of the cranial pressure or something. Unburden me of some of this stuffing.
Certain encounters in my life have shaped my feelings about stuff. When I was living as a missionary in Styria (the southeastern corner of Austria) in a town called Graz, I met a wonderful Spanish woman named Ninette G. She was mother to two sons and wife to a man who, at the time of their courtship, had been considered too common for her politically influential Madrid-inner-circle heritage. When she insisted on marrying for love and not lineage, her family essentially disowned her, giving no wedding but allowing her to at least take with her on her voyage to her new life in America the heirlooms she had previously inherited. Full length furs, furnishings in mahogany, diamonds and rubies and (seriously) sapphires. A taxidermied boar, if I remember the story correctly.
They set it all — all Ninette’s mortal belongings — on a ship, which was to meet the newlywed couple at the end of their transatlantic flight.
Ninette beamed (as she always did) as she told me of that day when she and her young husband stood in the sticky heat of a dock near Houston, Texas, waiting for their boat to arrive. They paced. And waited. And they waited. Until evening.
The ship, of course, would never come. That ship, the one with all her stuff, had sunk mid-ocean in a squall. At that news, the newlyweds stared at each other then at the ground, then maybe up at God in heaven, as I imagine them, and then Ninette’s husband began trembling with that weird collision of rage and panic.
Ninette, though, said she felt an even weirder collision. It was one of release and peace. “In that moment when I was told I’d lost everything,” she spoke to me with the crystal clear eyes of a person who is really alive, “I realized I’d lost nothing. Nothing at all.”
(So. . . while she was telling me this story, I have to admit that’s not exactly what I felt. I was 21 at the time, owner of not-so-much, and impressed by things like furs, ruby baubles and stuffed boars. When her ship sank, my heart sank with it—it plunged, even, to realms sub-oceanic. Which tells us something about where my heart was. As another Bible verse hints, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”)
While we’re talking about stuffed boars, I recall another instructive encounter:
I was sitting through five very long hours in a business dinner next to a couple I will call Horace and Mercedes Steinwitz. (Because those are such great names. And I’m aching to use them somewhere.)
Horace, in strained good humor, was trying to calm Mercedes, who was anticipating being moved with Horace’s job change from New Jersey to some European capital. Her concerns—shrill, incessant, verging on breathless — consumed the table’s conversation for the evening, offering us all, strangers to the Steinwitzes, most of us, a panoramic play-by-play of how tough this switch was going to be.
“My walk-in’s. What will I do without my walk-in’s?” Mrs. Steinwitz wrung her hands.
“We’ll buy armoires, dear.” Horace’s voice was flat.
(And I’d thought walk-in’s were shoes.)
“And my Sub-Zero? What about that?” She looked to the rest of us across the table for back-up, her eyes wide with urgency.
“We’ll get two or three small fridges, if you need more room, babe.” Horace patted her shoulder, nodding to us. Smiling.
(And I’d thought a Sub-Zero had to do with negative numbers. Which means math. So I knew right there I couldn’t help Mrs. Steinwitz.)
“My Navigator? You thinking of replacing it with two or three subcompacts or something, huh? Huh-uh. Not on your life, buddy.” She shrugged off his patting hand.
“But they have public transportation in those European cities, Merce. All you need’s a ticket.”
She swiveled her head so quickly to stare down her husband, I thought she’d get whiplash.
Seemed like a definitive no-go on the public idea.
“You think it’s so easy to just up and leave your cellar? Just like that?” Mercedes petitioned us up and down the table, arms stretched like Evita.
Horace and Mercedes were wine connoisseurs, I gathered in the next moment. Otherwise, I was a bit baffled about the problem with leaving your typically musty, spider-webby cellar.
“And all our wine! I just read the forms—did you read those forms, Horace?—I just read that these moving guys. Won’t. Even. Transport. Wi-i-i-i-ine.”
The last word took on a shape of its own, lifting, soaring in a long, nasal arc, and landing on a boingy surface that gave its one syllable four distinct levels. I can replicate it on the spot today, even after all these years. But it takes a lot of air.
“Look, you gotta understand one thing,” Mercedes whispered, leaning across her wi-i-ine glass, confiding in me. “Call me difficult, awright. But hey, I need my stuff.”
What is not so funny is that for the Indonesian packing crew at my house this week, I am probably their Mercedes Steinwitz. When I worked next to them in the kitchen this morning packing up tableware, they were babbling away in Bahasa.
“Tell me what you are saying,” I said to the man with sloping shoulders and no upper teeth. “Teach me Bahasa.”
“We saying you have so many plate.” The two other men laughed at him. Or maybe at me. Or at my many plate.
“Oh,” I apologized, “I have many plate because many friend.”
The men all looked at me like, And?
“Um, friend come, we have party,” I explained, looking at the stack of plate.
“In village, have party friend bring plate,” the smallest man with a mole on his eyelid said. “But you no need, Ma’am. You have plate for whole my village.”
More laughter, including mine. I probably do have enough plates for his whole village, every last one a wedding gift from 26 years ago. So should I tell him whole my village gave me many plate?
But the thing is, today I have more than many plate. I also have many pot. Many knife. Crepe griddle, raclette oven, rice cooker, juicer, blender, bread maker, roaster. Salad spinner. I have nutmeg grater, for heaven’s sake.
“In village, have one plate, one wok, one knife. Many children.” This man must be fifty, probably has many wife, too, and as a result, those many children.
These men look at me earnestly. Accusatorily? Or is that my own guilt? Good grief, I want to give them some stuff. Or at least my Jamie Oliver pizza stone.
Am I the same gal who had so little stuff when she got married, we fit it all into Randall’s vintage 1970 VW? And did we drive that bug from my parent’s home across town to his parent’s converted basement where we lived five years? In that one bedroom space, were we not poor students but broadly happy folks with our adapted lawn furniture, press board shelves, four university degrees, first computer and firstborn, Parker?
So whence—and as importantly, why-— all this stuff?
And what is all this stuff doing filling my carport, my computer files, my mind? When I try to pray to my Father in Heaven, as I taught the teenaged girls in Sunday school yesterday, is my mind so overstuffed that I cannot get clearance? A signal? Space?
Overstuffed with things or overthumbtacked with so many neon Post-It’s on my mental corkboard, how do I expect to pick up on the subtle needs of the humans encircling me, or on the even more subtle promptings of the spiritual, also encircling me?
There is a certain order of monks that claims that if you own more than seven things, they own you.
Thoreau wrote that our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather then housed by them.
A final and most personal story of stuff:
When we moved from Paris in June of 2007, I took care of the finishing details of clearing out our apartment, sending Randall and the children off in the car to say neighborhood goodbyes and pick up baguettes still hot and crusty from our local boulangerie. They timed it so they would show up to see off our moving crew, a spicy mix from the banlieue of Paris, headed by a great, burly fellow whose charm and salt-and-pepper eyebrows were equally luxuriant.
As that leader clamped shut the massive lock on our container parked in teeny Rue du Colonel Combes, he raised his voice and arms in a dramatic flourish, smacked the hind end of the trailer, and pronounced to the skies, “Madame, vos trésors!!”
Madame, your treasures.
In that very same instant, Randall rounded the corner in the Renault, kids hanging out windows wielding baguettes, waving, whooping, “Bonjour, Maman!!”
“Non, Monsieur,” I responded, an eye on the family van, “Voici mes trésors.”
These are my treasures.
In that serendipitously choreographed moment, I truly felt what I was saying as it caught in my throat, and I thought I knew just how completely those gangling arms and hoarse voices were my true treasures. I knew that if, like Ninette, my 40 ft. padlocked trunk of treasures drowned in the blue black of some ocean, I’d survive it well because I knew what is most precious. And what’s more, I had it. Precious and irreplaceable and necessary beyond the air I breathe as I type these very words. My treasure. My treasured family. I had every last one of them.
But now I know that I did not — could not — know then all that much about what it means to treasure. And I do not think most people know or can know. What I am telling you, reader, is the stabbing truth that no one can know the fluffiness of stuff and the heft of treasures — at least there is no way one can fully discern the difference between those two weights — unless one is willing to join the haunted ranks of those who have lost the heaviest things. By that I mean one cannot know unless, I suppose . . . unless . . . instead of some trunk of stuff, it is your true living treasure that drowns.
This afternoon I holed myself up in a far bathroom. In tissue and a handmade quilt I wrapped up an oil portrait of our 18-year-old Parker. The quilt was made by Lisa, a friend who took Parker’s volleyball and basketball jerseys and spun comfort out of them. She is from the haunted ranks I just mentioned, having lost her prized teenaged daughter to a freak ski accident. She knows the true weight of that quilt.
The painting was done by Jennifer, a friend who never knew Parker, just like all the friends I’ve made since July 2007 and all the people I will meet until the day I die. In this mortality we share, none of them will get to know this incredible, gigantic, human being, my beloved son. But this unusually sensitive woman grew to feel something of him by painting his profile taken from a photograph shot when he was playing drums in his senior class talent show. She cropped out his hands from the photo which are otherwise twirling drum sticks. Or as the French call them, baguettes.
That talent show was one week before he was waving other baguettes out a van window in Paris, calling to his Mom. And that was one month before he would lose his life trying to save another’s, caught, as we learned, in the violent churn of a hidden whirlpool. Drowned like sunken treasure.
“This you ship special,” I say as I hand my quilted bundle to the crew leader. My eyes don’t flinch, as I dare not give away my sacred secret.
“Airplane, not water?” he asks.
“Right. Airplane. No water.”
I give him the two black albums of funeral pictures. “And these,” I also hand him Parker’s personal journals kept up until July 18th, 2007, the day before the accident. “These are also special.”
“Special, Ma’am. Fragile?”
“Yes. Yes, fragile.”
Jacob’s grief made him fragile, but he withstood being thunderstruck by the news that his treasured son was still alive. His words, recorded in Genesis 45:28, ring sweetly to my heart: “It is enough, Joseph my son is yet alive.”
It is enough. All the trunkloads and truckloads in the world of other stuff will never be enough. And no amount of stuff could fill the hole left by his absence. You don’t know how light, how insubstantial stuff is by losing stuff. You find out by losing the heavies. The treasures. Then all weights are instantaneously recalibrated to take their correct place, which is lighter than the immeasurable weight of absence.
When my friend pulled up an hour ago to find me standing in the carport, barefoot, pants rolled to shins, hands on hips watching the stuff piled in boxes, she could not have known why there were tears filling my eyes. But she conjectured. I love her for her concern.
“Tough to see it all go?”
“Uh, not so much.”
“Worried it’ll get damaged?”
“Sick of living out of suitcases?”
“Nope. Not yet.”
“I know: tired. Right?”
“Oh, not really.”
“So . . . ah. . . what you thinking about?”
The leader places a box marked Air: Fragile in a far corner, nodding at me. I shake the tears back down their ducts.