What goes in a suitcase

When I would “run away” from home, I always used to pack washcloths. But my daughter makes equally quirky decisions.

John Nordell/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Suitcases are stacked in the basement prop room of the Huntington Theatre Company of Boston.

My family had one set of luggage when I was growing up: hard-side suitcases in marble white that my parents received as a wedding gift. I was particularly enamored of the cosmetic case. It was small and sturdy with metal latches that you pushed in with your thumbs to open, and the inside was lined with gray satin covered by another layer of ruched satin so you could tuck cosmetics in the side.

There was a small mirror – the same size as those on car visors – nestled inside the lid.

The farm where we lived was a happy place for me, but when I was 6 years old I ran away from home. I don’t remember why I decided to run away, but I’m sure I created quite a huff about it. 

My mother, knowing I wouldn’t go far, told me I could take the cosmetic case. I packed it full of washcloths – cheery yellow ones from the upstairs bathroom – because folded in half, and then half again, two would fit perfectly side by side. I remember getting to the end of the gravel lane (I wasn’t allowed on the road) and opening the case to peer inside at those fine-looking washcloths. It didn’t strike me at the time that I might need things like food or water or a sweatshirt against the cold. All I wanted were those impeccable washcloths and the sense that everything fit.

My daughter just turned 6 and has yet to run away, but she does love to pack a bag. There are bags we pack for destinations hundreds of miles away, but even if we’re only going to Costco – 40 minutes door to door – Cora knows to pack a fun bag to keep her busy in the car. 

When we lived on the farm, almost every place was a 50-minute trip, and nearly every time we left the house, my mom would yell to my sister and me, “Don’t forget your fun bags!” In my purse now I carry credit cards, baby wipes, and emergency contact numbers. 

When Cora packs her own fun bag, it has items like five mismatched socks, a board book from when she was a baby, a booklet of temporary tattoos, and a stuffed animal she hasn’t played with in weeks. One time I took out the socks to fit in something useful like her tablet computer, and the trip ended in tears before it even started. Whatever she’s packing, she has a reason for it and wants it as fiercely as I wanted those washcloths. I can still see them: the creases at their orderly folds, the sunny color, how they rose perfectly to the edge of the suitcase. We are never so blatant or confident in our desires as when we are children.

At night, after Cora’s long in bed and I’m ready to turn in, I’ll stop at her room on the way to mine, open the door, and peek in. It will be after I’ve made my list for the next day and packed all the lunches, after I’ve checked the weather and laid out my clothes. 

I’ll tiptoe to her bed so I can touch her warm form and assure myself she’s still there. She’s taken to sleeping with her head tucked under the quilt, not an inch of her showing. I worry she’s not getting enough air, but my guess is that, for her, it feels safer – the tactile sensation of flannel cocooning her head. 

I can almost remember smoothing my chubby child hand over those washcloths, the soft give as I pressed down, how they sprang back as if fresh from the dryer. What harm can come when you’re 6 years old?

At night, I’ll touch what I think will be my daughter’s hip and wait for her to stir, and then each time, every time, I’ll smooth down the quilt before I exit the room.

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