Keeping House

Katya Wagner

In the last three years, I’ve lived in eight homes in three cities. My last move was three weeks ago, with my fiance, from an apartment in Parkview, to my dad’s apartment in Killarney. My next move is this weekend, from Johannesburg to Cape Town.

I’ve moved all of my things, and I have too many things, so many times. Packing boxes and suitcases and unfolding plastic packets from their neat triangles (Joking! They’re all stuffed into a drawer!) with half-empty bottles of shampoo, shoes worn through with holes, and hairpins lovingly gathered along the way.

Some of these homes have been furnished. I’ve tried my best to remember which coathangers are mine, I’ve fetched every coffee cup from the car, where, in one confident move, I’ve stashed a new one each morning in the pocket behind the driver’s seat.

Our memories are actually clearer when we’re moving. Or at least, looking back on our lives, we’ll remember those times more clearly. It’s called a ‘relocation bump’, and just over a quarter of people’s memories occur around a move. This, the research goes, is because when you move, there is a new ‘backdrop’ to your life, and this change creates a marker around which your brain can organise memories.

Katya Wagner

I wonder if another reason isn’t because we tend to actively revisit memories when we move. Moving, like birthdays, causes us to think about a period of time. We add new notes to the box full of them. We get distracted and read the old ones again. Notes passed during class in grade four, homemade birthday cards with pictures cut from magazines, half-finished notebooks from university, photographs. We have farewell parties; we make memories.

We stop and think about the house. We’ll miss the morning light on the bath, though we were rarely up early enough on a weekend to experience it. We’ll miss the roof cooling down in the evening, crackling, and in summer the wisteria pods on the vine climbing the leopard tree outside crackling too as they split. We take the parts from their scattered boxes and assemble something neat, before packing it away in one place.

What upset me and my sister Julia when we left the house where she was born was that we really loved the sandpit next to the driveway. The sandpit we’d made a week before we were due to move. “But we just made a sandpit and are finally happy!”, we told each other.

Our parents, Peter and Claire, had a rare divorce agreement, which meant we alternated between my mom and dad’s houses weekly. On a Monday morning the one parent would drop us off at school and the other would fetch us. A smooth arrangement until, every Tuesday, we would realise that we’d left something important at the other house and rush past in the morning on the way to school. I recently found out that a friend of mine grew up the same way. She’s the first person I’ve met who ever did, and we played divorce snap. Finding it easier to move houses than stay in them for ages: snap! Moving in and leaving some suitcases unpacked until we move out, and the empty ones just within reach: snap!

I remember being so aware of learning to like staying in one place when I moved to university. There was the love of both my parent’s houses, the love of two houses at once; there was the love of having a constant home, though it was university residence; and a year later there was the love of having my own(ish) apartment. I’ve yet to stay in one longer than a year.

Katya Wagner

When I was small, one of the most depressing things in the world was the feeling a house had when you came back to it from holiday. Now it’s one of my favourite. Cool and still and settled. I love moving in. Carefully unpacking glasses. The two bits of furniture you’ll never leave behind (an oval bedside table; a desk), learning new mornings, evenings, weekends.

When we move into the new house, we have to learn all about it. We learn about the taps. How to open the blinds and turn the keys in their locks. We learn how best to climb into the shower to ensure maximum immediate water contact and avoid scattered immersion.

Homes don’t learn us back. So I wonder how much less clear our memories will be the ‘smarter’ our homes get. If, as with a new cell phone, one day we’ll move in and have that slight feeling of disappointment when our settings are immediately restored. That we’re not forced to rebuild from scratch. If we’d had to start over, we’ll say, we would have rebuilt better, folded the plastic bags.

With climate control, fingerprint keys, flattering lighting and windows that aren’t windows at all but screens, the backdrop will change less, so maybe those markers will be less vivid.

The internet of things and the settings that those things will tell each other about will have its moments. This weekend, when we move into our next apartment, we will remember once to water the new herbs. We will watch them die. We’ll never water the delicious monster. We will watch it live forever. Someday, we’ll think, those herbs will water themselves. A thing will remind me to keep using makeup remover. I’ll still, after all, have packed it into the boot of my blue Honda, jumped into the driver’s seat and moved it to a new, even better home. One where, I tell myself each time, I’ll plant myself like wisteria and wind up a leopard tree until it’s more vine than branches, the home and myself inseparable, crackling in the summer, year after year.


Helen Sullivan is the co-founder and editor of Prufrock, a multilingual print quarterly of African fiction, nonfiction and poetry. To submit, subscribe, find stockists or get in touch, visit Follow her monthly column on Casimir about new technologies and how they interact with, or replace the things they aim to improve upon. 


Illustrations by Katya Wagner 


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