Growing up I spent a lot of time with my cousins. We would create elaborate imaginary worlds and on-going dress-up dramas that would endure for several months. We played a lot of cards and board games. We watched Pink Panther movies over and over again. We put on embarrassing dance performances for large family gatherings by using our pastel-colored boom boxes to record music from the radio.
And we played a lot of Sardines. Sardines is similar to hide-and-seek, but instead of hiding from the seeker, everyone looks for one person, then crams into the hiding space together. When we eventually crawled into that space we would hold our breath, fight the giggles, and remain hidden until the final person discovered the sweaty mess of kids crammed under our grandmother’s back porch steps or in a musty closet with towering piles of our grandfather’s old tax returns. The last person to discover the “sardines” was the next one to hide, and the game would continue until my grandmother would call us into the kitchen for an afternoon snack.
I am sure we must have played Sardines in other places, but my strongest memory of playing it is at my grandparents’ home. Theirs was a large house, which at one point held nine children. But as they grew up and moved into their own homes, it gradually became filled with boxes, mounds of papers, unfinished projects, egg cartons, books, plastic bags, yarn, sweepstakes letters, empty margarine tubs, damaged or unlabeled cans of food, among other things. My grandparents had grown up during the Depression and they were both incredibly bright, resourceful, and witty. But they also had a strong need to hold onto anything that could potentially be reused, refurbished, and remembered. They were hardcore recyclers and hoarders long before those terms became commonplace.
I inherited my grandparents’ tendency to hold onto things, but as a military family who frequently has overseas assignments, we are limited in the weight and size of our household goods. Moving every three to five years forces us to reevaluate all of our belongings. It is an incredibly draining process for me and with this most recent move from Maryland to Japan, I started to think about the different ways I “box” things up in my life. While weaving in between wobbly piles of books and my excessive collection of tablecloths, I realized that it goes so much deeper than objects. I don’t just cling to physical items — I also clutch bits and pieces of stories and raw emotions. And just like any seasoned Sardines player, I hold my breath and cram them into the tight spaces hidden from view until they are ready to be rediscovered and reexamined. Sometimes these memories reemerge in expected ways, but most of the time they catch me off guard and take my breath away.
Since moving to Japan, my eleven-year-old daughter, Camille, has discovered the joys of origami and has spent countless hours transforming single sheets of paper into three dimensional creations that are both fragile and surprisingly durable. One of the very first things Camille learned to make were boxes, lovely little boxes that are able to hold their shape with only a few deft folds of the paper.
Soon, after she mastered those boxes, we visited the Hiroshima Peace Park. At the entrance to the Memorial Hall honoring the victims, we stopped to admire a set of miniscule origami cranes. Camille and I were amazed by how tiny, perfect, and beautiful they are. A Japanese docent noticed our fascination with them and guided us over to her desk where she proceeded to hand Camille a little origami box, similar to the boxes she had been making but on a much smaller scale. Nestled inside that box, were two of the smallest cranes we had ever seen.
The docent told us that she had made them that morning and that she wanted my daughter to have them. My eyes filled with tears as we thanked her for her generosity. Camille and I moved on to the memorial space, and the tears continued to flow. I was struck by the power of the paper box that my daughter was so carefully cradling in her hand. Surrounded by the haunting presence of war, loss, and sorrow, there was also this gift of peace, hope, beauty, and human connection all tucked into an itty-bitty box, made by a Japanese woman and gifted to an American girl.
We returned home, and my daughter found a special spot for the origami boxes in her room. Sometimes it’s the smallest boxes that contain the most important pieces of ourselves and others. Sometimes we cram as much as we can into whatever size box we have – a back closet filled with cousins or a moving box packed with seashells and favorite photos. And sometimes what’s most precious to us is hidden in unexpected spaces, small containers, just waiting for the perfect moment to be discovered, a moment of clarity and resonance. These are what I treasure and carry with me around the world.
Words and image by Lucia Saperstein.