The suitcase test we never would have passed

While back we were watching one of those old movies on the old movie channel when there was a scene that made my blood run cold. The villain ran into his bedroom, grabbed a suitcase, flung it on the bed, and started frantically throwing clothes into it.

I glanced sideways at my husband, wondering if he'd been paying attention, but he was working a crossword puzzle so he hadn't noticed. Relief flooded through me, and I hurriedly changed channels. I was afraid a scene like that would lead to another of our discussions on how suitcases are supposed to be packed. This has been a recurring and troublesome subject for about 40 years.

Frankly, my technique of suitcase packing is more or less like the guy in the movie, even when the cops aren't after me. But my husband is an engineer. He's a man who believes in packing the corners first. I am a woman who believes that if you just stack stuff in the middle, the corners will take care of themselves. When you close the lid, everything will get squished to the outer edges the way an over-easy egg yolk covers the whole egg when you stick a fork in it, and all will fit nicely.

It's probably just as well that we each packed for the honeymoon in the privacy of our own homes, even though he had bought me a very nice set of pale blue Samsonite luggage including the little oblong train case with the mirror in the lid that was popular in those days. Had he watched me pack this elegant luggage, he probably would have emerged pale and shaken and having second thoughts about this "for better or worse" business.

As it was, we had been married for several months before he saw me, a stack of clothes, and an open suitcase all in the same room at the same time. I still remember the look on his face when he came into the room - puzzled, troubled, and increasingly horrified as he realized what I was up to. I was packing his suitcase! Cautiously, as though approaching an armed lunatic, he reached out to take some socks out of my hand. Then he backed away, gently assuring me that he could pack his suitcase himself.

Some years ago, as I pondered the difference in our approach to packing a suitcase, I realized that it's symptomatic of numerous other differences that we somehow overlooked as we contemplated life together. This isn't unusual. At a time when young people are first basking in their incredible good fortune in finding each other, the tendency is to gloss over whatever differences they may have. Conflicts about how to decorate a Christmas tree, or how much furniture is really necessary, or how early to leave for the airport will all come later.

Thinking that I might be able to help young couples recognize certain basic differences in their approach to life, about 20 years ago I devised "The Suitcase Packing Compatibility Test." The idea was to put a young engaged couple in a room with a suitcase and a stack of clothes and see whether they could pack for the honeymoon together and emerge from the experience still wanting to get married.

In the years since I came up with this idea, much has changed in American society, of course, including the rituals of courtship and engagement. These days, when some couples may have known each other for years before they decide to get married, they may think they already know everything about each other.

Yet it could well be that the honeymoon is still the first trip they take together, and they probably have no more experience in packing than throwing a pair of hiking boots into a duffel bag.

How can they discover that one of them is methodical and well organized while the other likes spontaneity and improvisation if they haven't dealt with packing belts and scarves and shoes? How are they going to learn about each other's priorities if they haven't had to decide which stuff goes on top and which on the bottom?

The suitcase-packing-compatibility test is simple, inexpensive, and practical. It can help young people understand and accept each other's differences before trouble starts. Actually, nothing prepares a young couple for the subsequent complications of life better than facing a suitcase together.

As years go by, they're going to have a lot of trouble trying to fit everything in, make room for everything in their lives, and agree on priorities. They might as well start now.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.