The Peaks and Pits of Family Packing

When my father was a merchant marine, he supervised the packing of cargo ships. He decided which crates would go where, which shipments needed special attention, and which loads would need to be taken off the ship first.

''How a ship is packed,'' he explained to me and my three sisters, ''affects how the ship rides. And although many of my ships suffered from heavy listing as we came into harbor, I never lost one.''

With a growing family ashore, my father eventually left the merchant marines and turned his skill to packing cars for our annual car trip west each summer from Boston to Michigan.

''There's a right way and a wrong way to pack a car,'' he told us a number of times, ''just like there's a right way and a wrong way to pack a ship.''

My dad would prepare for the trip by backing the vehicle up our loose gravel driveway to the steps leading down from the breezeway. My three sisters and I had been instructed to leave our four matching suitcases at the top of the breezeway steps and there, with the trunk lid thrown open like the mouth of some prehistoric creature, my father would begin to pack.

''I never lost a ship,'' I heard him mutter under his breath. ''A few listed, but I never lost a ship.''

In addition to our four matching suitcases, there was my mother's large red-vinyl zippered valise with the enormous buckle. There was a hanging bag for my mother's dresses, a variety of paper bags holding presents for cousins, boxes with ribbons, our rubber boots in case of foul weather, toys, notebooks, pens, books, my mother's Bible, a few jars of preserves to be presented to one relative or another, and my father's beaten-up, dark brown plastic overnight bag.

Whether we were leaving for two weeks or two days, my father always packed all he needed in his overnight bag. The bag never weighed much, and in retrospect I suspect he never packed much more than a toothbrush, bathing suit, and a spare pair of white undershorts. As a minimalist, he often found his family's packing habits shocking and dismaying.

''What have you got in here, Shirt, a load of bricks?'' he asked my youngest sister.

We were all called Shirt, the only family nickname used with consistency through the years. In looking back, I wonder if he didn't consider Shirt a high compliment: thin, light, easy to pack, nearly weightless.

''You can pack anything you want, Shirts,'' my father would tell us the night before our trip, ''so long as you can carry your bag yourself.''

Upstairs, in the three connected bedrooms, we four would pack, zip shut the cases, heave them off the beds, and practice lugging our cargo across the floor.

''How far do you think he'll make us carry these bags?'' one of us would inevitably ask, having stuffed books, jewelry boxes, toy animals, shoes, and piggy banks into every corner of those small matching suitcases.

''Well, farther than that,'' my older sister would inevitably retort.

The packing rules never applied to our mother, though her messy, freestyle disregard of the rules and her last-minute shoveling of goods into bags and totes left her open for criticism. She jammed breakable jars next to shoes and a hair dryer, and pushed clothing still warm from the dryer into bags stuffed with snacks.

She still can't pack even after 47 years of on-the-job training from my father, and the storage areas in her home echo her poorly packed suitcases. The last time I stood in her kitchen, I opened a cabinet and her pocketbook fell on my head.

''Organizing is just not my strong suit,'' she explained, not missing a beat and reaching above my head to put away the purse.

To my husband's dismay, I have learned both my father's minimalist approach to packing and my mother's lack of organization. Wherever we go, I always pack too many books and too few clean clothes. Still, I am able to carry my own bags. I may list slightly to one side, favoring the shoulder that carried more weight for days, but I can carry my own bags.

My husband, on the other hand, comes from a family that actually uses porter services at the airports instead of those little trolleys.

My son and I pack a duffel bag less than half the size of my husband's sleek black suitcase on wheels with seven hidden pockets. And while I easily can ferret out my next book from the duffel's ample bottom, I can never sort out the clean clothes from the dirty ones. But then, I am always sure that there will be clean shirts aplenty from my husband's neatly ordered supplies to stretch my own wardrobe.

''Are you wearing this today?'' I will query sheepishly midway through our vacation. My husband is more than gracious. He knows I accuse him of over-packing, which in my family is the first sign of someone pampered and insecure, unable to define the essentials in life.

I have been watching my eight-year-old son with great interest to see which side of the family his packing skills will favor. For our last anniversary, we decided to splurge. I booked us at an intimate, elegant five-star hotel smack in the center of Bologna, Italy.

I had fallen asleep for the last hour or two of the trip, and our arrival at the front door of the hotel took me by surprise.

'We need to move a little quickly,'' my husband explained as he woke me. ''I can't really park here, but we can unload the luggage before the traffic backs up too badly.''

With that, the doorman of our hotel opened my passenger door. I tossed my hair back and tried to look alert and five-starish. But my heart sank as the doorman in his lovely dark-blue uniform trimmed with burgundy braids swept open the back seat door of our rental car. Out wriggled my son and left a veritable minefield of chaos in his wake. He stood outside the car door, smiling, confident, unashamed, and heavily dusted in potato-chip crumbs. He turned and walked into the hotel lobby, bits of chips stuck to his pant legs, his stuffed lion in his arms.

To the pavement had fallen Gameboy cartridges, empty snack wrappers, loose pages of coloring books and magazines, a soda can, a half-eaten banana, drying tangerine peels, and a book. I knelt to stuff everything back into the car, while the doorman and my husband lifted our luggage from the trunk to the sidewalk.

By instinct I reached for my duffel bag, but the doorman stopped me. ''Ci penso io,'' he said, placing his hand on my wrist, ''I'll take care of that.''

My mind flashed to my father. Would he approve? Should I struggle with the porter and insist on carrying my own luggage? I turned to look for my husband, but he had disappeared to park the car.

I hesitated, swallowed, and turned on my heels. I followed the trail of potato-chip crumbs shed by my son and, listing slightly to the left for no reason at all, walked empty-handed through the serenity of the hotel lobby.

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