I carried a suitcase that held a lesson

Today, as I scooted my grandmother's suitcase away from an eave cupboard door, I had a small epiphany. The suitcase isn't fine by today's standards. I suspect that under its laminated faux linen covering it is cardboard. Still, it has held up well through the years, and the monogrammed gold "M.O.S." continues to gleam beneath the handle.

I was given this suitcase and a matching cosmetic case by my grandmother when I was young. She explained at the time that she no longer needed it and the monogrammed initials matched mine. The suitcase now holds wool sweaters during the summer, and the cosmetic case simply sits there, though I do open it now and then to check if the tenacious scent of Cashmere Bouquet bath soap still lingers there.

Before I had my grandmother's suitcase I used my father's. The story of his suitcase began with my first and only experience of Girl Scout camp. I was 10 and beginning to want, desperately, to do exactly as my friends did. That summer several of them were going to camp and, after much discussion, the decision was made that I could go as well.

I was going to camp! The house was abuzz with this fact. When the list of required equipment and clothing arrived in the mail, my mother and grandmother pulled out the sewing machine. They created a wardrobe of shorts and shirts that would see me through a week.

The night before my departure the new clothing lay folded on the sewing table along with toiletries and a Girl Scout pocketknife. Suddenly, the need for a suitcase became apparent. My father said I could use the one he'd carried from his home in northern California to Klamath Falls, Ore., where he had boarded with family while attending high school.

Dad scrounged around in the basement and returned, clutching a suitcase and smiling.

The suitcase was brown. It was old. It was misshapen. Dad said it had been run over once but that it "still worked." He and my mother dusted it off, and Mother began to put clothes into its dented depths as Dad reminisced about the journeys he and the suitcase had taken.

My stomach churned at first sight of that suitcase. Its impressive history had done little to quell my horror. I'd seen my friends' shiny cases, and this piece of luggage did not measure up. I held my tongue until the case was closed and we found the latches didn't hold.

"Well," said Dad, eyeing the suitcase and running a hand through his hair, "we'll just tie it shut with a good piece of rope."

With that, I proclaimed, "I cannot go to camp carrying a suitcase tied with a rope!"

Later, after my tears had slowed, I was given a choice: I could stay home, or I could carry the "suitcase tied with a rope," as it had become known.

"Just pretend you're so rich it doesn't matter," Dad said. He touched my shoulder gently before he left the bedroom where I'd thrown my disconsolate self onto the bed.

I left the next morning, carrying the suitcase held shut with a length of new rope. I returned a week later vowing never to go to camp again.

My friends and I had been housed in different sections of the camp, the food was gruesome, and the heavy flannel pajamas my grandma had sewn had failed to keep me warm in the high mountains of Oregon. I'd been miserable and homesick to boot, although I never admitted the latter.

My epiphany of this morning suggested that my parents thought my lack of interest in returning to Girl Scout camp was a result of the "suitcase tied with a rope," for the next year my father's mother presented me with the matching, monogrammed luggage.

As years passed, the incident of the roped suitcase faded from memory. I was a wife with my own children when a reminder came, via telephone. The call from my father startled me one workday afternoon.

After he assured me that everything was OK, he told me that the automobile of a state senator had been "at the dealership for some work." He had driven the car to the airport to meet the senator's wife, and she had dropped Dad off back at work.

Why had my father called me in the middle of the afternoon to tell me this?

Then Dad began to chuckle. "Just wanted to let you know that the senator's wife had a suitcase with her."

"A suitcase?" I asked

"A very old one, a very old suitcase held shut with a piece of rope," he said.

It took a moment to understand, but then the memory of his suitcase washed over me. "Well, Dad," I said, swallowing a lump that had formed in my throat, "she's so rich it doesn't matter!"

The episode has become part of our family lore. Dad's presence in our lives is a precious reminder that there never was a need to "pretend" to be rich in our family. His children have always been rich - even when we carried a suitcase tied with a rope.

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