The packing slip read like this:
Shipment from Milan/Italy to Wellington/New Zealand
Mr. Giovanni Jacopo Tiso
[followed by the address]
1. Part of table
2. Part of table
3. Part of table
7. Small table
8. Part of small table
9. Decoration wrought iron
20. Kitchen tools
21. Part of table
23. Chest of drawers
A psychologically more accurate list might read: family life (x1). Or: childhood. But we must account for things separately and objectively. Tick them off the list.
These are things. They are not who I am.
The mind always goes back to Georges Perec’s wonderful inventories. He would have abhorred my packing slip. Books? What do you mean, books? Or vases or tools? This is far too vague. A Perecian inventory would be far more systematic and precise, but not mechanically so. A list to reveal and at the same time to obscure. A list to make you curious.
Umberto Eco recently wrote a book entitled The Infinity of Lists. I was shocked to discover there is nothing in it by Perec. Entire pages of Life: A User’s Manual begged to be included. Maybe he forgot.
If you forget a list you need to check it against your list of lists.
The shipment arrived this morning. Justine and I ticked all of the items off the packing slip. Then we opened the boxes and we unwrapped the furniture.
My surprise at seeing things I packed only four months ago. Her surprise at seeing things she had never seen, or had nearly forgotten. We both marvelled at how little the dining room table looked in its new surroundings. Tiny. Such a familiar object, in every sense of the word, and yet we had no objective sense of its dimensions.
I lived with that table from the age of zero to the age of 21. Take away 40 days or so a year spent away from the house altogether. 200 school lunches from the age of 4 to the age of 18. Deduct another 50 or so sundry meals. That makes – very roughly – 400 meals a year, which times 21 makes 8,400 meals. Plus four or five hundred at least since I left home. What about time spent at the table? Shall we say 5,000 hours? At least. And it still wasn’t enough to give me an accurate sense of its size.
I will say these are just things, that they are not who I am, but I know it’s not true. There is a groove on that table where I used to sit, then my mother. Things take the shape of us, and us theirs.
When the table was made, Europeans had no knowledge of New Zealand. It’s a proper old thing. Yet that it found its way here is no stranger than the fact that I did.
The oldest thing in our possession – or rather the one that we have possessed the longest, as a family – is a small dowry chest, a matrilinear taonga passed down along with the practice of measuring a woman’s worth in sets of sheets. It’s a complicated object, full of pain and toil and hope. It’s also quite beautiful. But the things I treasure the most are the ones that are grooved. Shaped like us. The rolling pin that my nonna used to make pasta, carved from a single piece of cherry wood, almost as long as she was tall once age bent her figure. I used to sit in her kitchen, when I was eight or nine, and watch her as she used it to roll out the dough in perfect circles, the pasta so thin as to be almost transparent. Then if she happened to be making fogliate (the broad tagliatelle typical of the area) she rolled up the pasta and took out a special knife called la curtlina. For the cuts to be made with the necessary precision and speed – both of which were astonishing – it needed to be very sharp and thin. But la curtlina wasn’t just an excellent knife. It existed within a broader economy of scarcity and reuse, of which it was the concrete product. First came the scythe, whose blade didn’t wear down uniformly across its entire surface as the grain was reaped. So when a scythe could no longer be sharpened and had to be disposed of, the part of the blade close to the handle could be recycled into a specialist kitchen knife for making pasta, accounting for its peculiar shape.
La curtlina was instrumental to so many of the meals I consumed as a child that you could say I am made of it. Of that form, of those gestures, of the labour that went into producing it. To the extent that the modern kitchen doesn’t typically accommodate such storied objects, we may not wish to lament it, reflecting that it’s a function of poverty to make things last so long, and that few people, given the choice, would actually trade an interesting story for comfort and convenience; or that the fashion for nostalgic re-enactments of peasant traditions divorced from their lived social context is an anachronistic perversion. I won’t dispute any of that. But I am not drawing a larger lesson here, just following a personal history. And for that I need these objects to remember with, these things.