Sunday, June 9, 2013

Unpacking Grandma's Suitcase

Or “Why I Can’t Get Rid of It.” I have dragged a vintage (circa 1950) Samsonite hard suitcase around with me from one storage rack (in my home) to another for longer than I can remember. It’s on a shelf in my garage right now, smiling at me.

I believe this suitcase once belonged to my grandmother, who passed it along to my mom. I don’t actually remember my grandmother ever using it, but I seem to remember Mom referring to it as “grandma’s suitcase.” When did I acquire this possession? At least 35 years ago. Maybe 40. I may have perhaps even used it once when I travelled to Europe as a teenager. I have now had it in my possession for more time than either my mother or my grandmother.

Why do I still have grandma’s suitcase? Suitcase design has progressed light years beyond an entirely impractical 1950 Samsonite. It’s heavy and it doesn’t hold very much stuff. I will never use it again. No one else will either. I once offered it to our local community theater as a prop and they said they already have more vintage suitcases in storage than they need. I nearly asked them if I could take a look to see if any of theirs matched the one I have, but I restrained myself.

Truth? I have a pretty good idea why I have so much trouble letting go of this suitcase. It has to do with my strongest and most profound memory of the suitcase from when I was a little girl. I vividly remember seeing it open on the bed in Mom’s once-bedroom in the house she grew up in one afternoon when our family was visiting my grandparents. Perhaps Mom was packing it for us to return home or perhaps she was unpacking it at the beginning of our stay. Or perhaps she had simply opened it to get something out.

Whenever I recall the image of that suitcase open on that bed, a host of memories floods my senses. I can smell the many scents of my grandmother’s house. The lavender soap in the bathroom. The percolated coffee and fried bacon in the kitchen in the morning. Scent of heavy wooden furniture. Mothballs in the coat closet in the front entranceway. Spice in the pantry with the glass doorknob. The leather smell of my grandfather’s recliner in his den.

That suitcase. I can hear the traffic in the busy street that ran past the front of the house and I can very nearly feel myself tucked into a bed in my grandparents’ bedroom where the sound of the cars rushing by in the street below was most pronounced. I can see the sunlight pouring in the window at the stairway landing where my grandmother kept fragile glass objects that reflected the sun in marvelous ways. I can hear my grandmother playing ”April Showers” on her piano, the only tune she could remember from her brief stint of taking piano lessons as a girl. Marvelous green lamps with prismic crystals that threw rainbows. I remember the feel of the living room carpet. The metal milk box just outside the kitchen door. The bright red cardinals in the large tree outside my mother’s girlhood bedroom.

That suitcase. The intricately carved Victorian dining room furniture and how my brothers and I loved to crawl around under that dining room table with the enormous bulbous legs. The breakfast nook with the high wooden benches where my grandfather would sit to eat his cereal and read the newspaper before he went to work and I would wake up very early, before anyone else in the house stirred, to sit with him while he ate and ask him questions. (Why did he work on the weekends when we visited? I have no idea.) Barton’s Almond Kisses – my grandmother’s favorite candy. Cantaloupe before dinner – a slice on a plate for each of us before the meal was served. Oh that house. That suitcase open on the bed in that house.

My grandfather built that house for my grandmother and they lived in it their entire married life. After my grandfather died, my grandmother sold the house and moved into a much smaller home. Ever since she sold the house, I have had a fantasy of building one just like it and living in it. That never happened. But I have the suitcase. I realize that I don’t need the suitcase to unpack the memories, and yet I can’t let it go. 

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