The Things That We Carry

MY children are seasoned travelers. In the last 10 years, we've driven west to east across the northern United States and east to west across Canada. We've stayed in places so remote that bald eagles were as plentiful as the robins in our yard. We've canoed off a sparsely populated Canadian island where wild mink ran parallel to us on a rugged bank.

It wasn't until this past summer, however, that my children flew on a plane. Our mode of travel has always allowed them a fair amount of baggage. In the car, we can always squeeze in one more stuffed bear or a few more books, but the plane rules were clear - two carry-ons. Period.

I chose my typewriter and a big blue bag that held games, gum, crayons, a deck of playing cards, and books. I could hold the bag over my shoulder. This left one hand free for emergencies, a habit I'd developed when my children were small and easily distracted. I made it clear the night before we left that I would not - could not - carry anything belonging to someone else. What my son and daughter packed, they had to carry.

My son filled his backpack and tested it to see if the weight was reasonable. He carried a canvas satchel that held the two stuffed animals no one in our family could bear to risk losing. My daughter carefully arranged books and art supplies in her pack. "What do you have in your canvas bag?" I asked her.

My daughter can sense an argument on the wind like some fishermen can predict the most remote storm. "I have to take these, Mom," she said. She stood protectively in front of her satchel. Held in the sturdy bag were all the rocks she'd collected on the East Coast. Some were small, but most resembled an adult-sized fist.

"Can you lift that?" I asked her.

With great enthusiasm she hefted the bag over her slender six-year-old shoulder. "See, Mom, no problem."

I try to pick my battles carefully, especially with my independent daughter. "OK," I said, "but remember, you're on your own," a phrase I used more to convince myself than Hallie.

Our boarding gate was close to the airport entrance. Hallie gave me several brave grins as she bumped her way to the plane. On board, she stashed her bag under the seat and smiled a nonverbal, "See, no problem" to me.

We had one connection to make. We got off the plane at O'Hare and studied a complex map that labeled the gates in the airport. Our boarding gate was a fair distance, but we had 30 minutes to get there - no problem. We walked for a bit. My son began to gaze longingly at the attendants with wheelchairs. He asked me if we could get one.

Hallie's rest stops became more frequent. Thirty minutes seemed to shrink to seconds as we slowly wound our way through the busy terminals. She started to drag her canvas bag behind her.

Finally, gravity took the upper hand. Hallie's overfull backpack and heavy load gently collapsed her onto the tile floor. She sat in the middle of the concourse where people split around her like creek waters divide around a big boulder.

We made it to the gate. We even stood among the first in line. I never asked my daughter if it was worth it to haul all those rocks home.

We're planning for another trip next summer. We'll be gone longer this time. Long enough to have to pack up our house. Long enough to have to choose carefully what to bring.

We've been simplifying, getting rid of some things that we haven't worn or used in years. I tell my daughter a story one of my students told me about the importance of taking a piece of your "roots" with you wherever you go, so you won't forget your place.

I'll be taking the same small ceramic salmon a friend made that I take on every journey away from home. "What will you take?" I ask my children.

My son realizes that he's taken something of his father's on every trip, so he decides to take his dad's old jackknife.

My daughter says she will bring rocks. My son suppresses a groan. "Just one, though, Dylan," she says.

"Can you live without all those rocks?" I ask her.

"No problem."

It's been good to free ourselves from some of the heavy baggage we've stored over the years. It's making us see that what we carry on trips - and perhaps every day - is more a matter of choice then necessity.

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