Barrel Nostalgia

This weekend at dinner, I turned to my friend and asked her,

“Did your family ever send a barrel?”

Based on the blank, slightly confused face that responded in silence, I realized that answer was no.

Barrels were a pretty significant part of my childhood. For my family (and many immigrant families), it was a ritualized practice of sending things back to the home country. More commonly in the New York metro area, it was how things were sent back to the Caribbean. Barrels were sold by shipping companies through mail carriers, and even the local grocery store.

For my Guyanese-American family, barrels were a big event.

First, a brave person elected to purchase a barrel. This was particularly courageous because barrels were expensive (because of the flat-rate bulk shipping), and they were large. Large enough for my 8-year-old self to fantasize about making it my clubhouse, but refraining from fear of accidentally sealing myself in and suffocating to death. I don’t know if that was actually possible, but it was enough to convince me to never get in a barrel.

Next, there was the collection. This barrel took up residence in a corner of a person’s house or apartment until extended family members had deposited their goods to be sent. Again, not only do you have a giant brown barrel in your living room taking up space, blocking the TV, generally being an eyesore, but you also have everything to fill it, slowly taking up all the other available space in the living room. This collection could take weeks if you choose poorly and got a late pick-up date from the delivery company.

The items selected were eclectic, to say the least. Six-month old Bollywood celebrity magazines. A pair of sneakers. A Walkman (because it was the ’90s). A Discman (because it was the late ’90s). Hanes 3-pack T-shirts. VHS tapes of Bollywood movies. VHS tapes of Hollywood movies. Some cassette tapes. Hand-me-down clothes. Danielle Steele novels.

Finally, there was the packing. It was the day mom and dad would drag my brother and me over to an aunt/grandparent/distant cousin’s house to hang out while the adults slowly packed the barrel. If my parents played Tetris, maybe they would’ve been better at wrapping T-shirts around videotapes and stacking them perfectly so that the most rectangular items could fit in a huge cylinder. While every relative in a 10-mile radius either wrapped and folded things, or generally stood around and yelled instructions at each other, the kids ran around waiting for the loose candy to finally be opened. At some point in the barrel packing a child would be selected to stand in the barrel, jump up and down, and pack in those “Filmfare” magazines. I was afraid of everything as a kid, so I never wanted to be shoved into a barrel for any purpose (not even for the clubhouse). I was however, jealous of the anointed barrel jumper, because I desperately wanted to be included.

The last step was the best step. Again, these are flat-rate barrels, so every possible inch of space is precious and costly. So, to fill those tiny cracks, loose candy was sprinkled on top of the barrel, followed by rigorous shaking and settling of the barrel, and then more sprinkling of candy. This was repeated several times until all the candy was gone, or no space was left. The entire barrel collection and packing was a very specific practice, carried out in the same way in many different homes.

I don’t really know what prompted this story telling over some waffle fries at a dive bar on a Sunday evening. I sometimes wonder about how specific practices in my childhood, which as a kid made me feel strange and awkward (despite growing up in a heavily immigrant community with many families familiar with the act of sending things “home”) impact how I am now. Barrels aren’t sent anymore, as travel is cheaper, and most of my family has immigrated here by now. Living now as an adult in a city of immigrants and strangers, home has become somewhat strange and idealized to me.

I don’t even have space in my apartment for a barrel, anyway.

By Karishma

Karishma is a twenty-something living in New York City and is trying her hardest to live out every cliche about Millennials. This involves eating her feelings, drowning in debt and mocking infomercials. She likes sociology so much that she has two degrees in it, and is still warding off her parents' questions about a real career.

5 replies on “Barrel Nostalgia”

This is fantastic! I love the description of the family bonding over packing, and especially the detail of stuffing the crevices with candy—guaranteeing that the recipient got a little fun in the middle of all those functional items.

My family just used plain ol’ boxes to ship things back to Spain, or hid contraband (i.e., smoked meats) on their person during return trips. (Air security was looser in the ’80s.) I need to share this with them to let them know of the missed opportunity!

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