Like you, I have a suitcase in rip-stop fabric, with four spinny wheels to save my back and handy zippered mesh pockets. A marvel of product design, it’s light as helium to hoist up into the overhead compartment, and it does everything but print out my boarding pass 24 hours ahead of my flight. The only thing to distinguish it on the carousel from endless iterations is the tacky red yarn I’ve tied on the handle. But my heart belongs to the three-piece Samsonite luggage “suite” in hot pink that my glamorous grandmother gave me a piece at a time when I was in high school.
What expectations I had for that luggage! I took it on my first plane trip, to Washington D.C., when I was a senior. I’d won an essay contest and was instructed that for the dinner before the awards ceremony I should bring a “cocktail dress” – a term that as the progeny of teetotalers thrilled me to a polka dot. Never mind that I was not yet legally old enough to drink: Life is a costume party, and I had the costume. I carefully folded my beaded, blush-colored Empire-style crepe dress (it broke a daring two inches above the knee) into my big Samsonite case, securing it with nylon straps. The suitcase had a lock whose combination was the month and day of my birth, just like a diary.
Along with it was a boxy matching rectangular train case to carry on, with ruched silk pockets and a built-in mirror. There was plenty of room for your hair rollers and your Bonne Belle White White, so you could still highlight your cheekbones -- in a vain attempt to look like Twiggy -- in case you were parted from your big bag. (Today it’s my cholesterol medicine and orthotics that I can’t do without.)
Fast forward a few years to after college and a year and a half into my first job, when I chucked everything, even my Samsonite, for a Eurailpass, an International Youth Hostel card, and a neon orange backpack. I’d been advised to sew a maple leaf insignia to the backpack to identify myself as a Canadian, better tolerated overseas than an ugly American. But I could not bring my patriotic self to do so. When my mother took me to the Des Moines airport to depart for Europe (where I knew not a soul), she warned with implacable mom logic, “Don’t talk to strangers.”
It was advice I later repeated to my then-college student daughter Kate, as she and soulmate Darcy embarked on a cross-country road trip ala Thelma and Louise. I know, what was I thinking? But I couldn’t have stopped them if I wanted to, and it was oddly comforting that she took with her my biggest Samsonite bag -- scuffed and faded but still living up to its Biblical muscleman-inspired name. I thought of it as a maternal talisman against harm. Turned out they not only talked to strangers but also relied upon their kindness, like Blanche DuBois. Driving Kate’s boyfriend’s Mazda, a manual, they couldn’t get it into gear climbing one of Frisco’s fabled hills. So a Samaritan towed them, and just as they crested the hill, his car got hit by another. (Thank you, kind sir. I hope your karma has improved.)
My Samsonite triplets have long been orphaned. The middle one may be languishing in a landfill, the train case bought for a buck at Goodwill and converted into a planter, the big one pressed into service as a coffee table. They served me well, helping me learn that as John Steinbeck wrote, when we travel best, we do not take a trip. The trip takes us.
This essay originally appeared in DBQ magazine.