It was tiny, but to a small five-year-old girl, it was huge and the most beautiful thing she had ever seen in her life and the best part - it was hers. Her mom even told her so. Before today, she had not even known what a suitcase was. Reaching out eagerly, she ran her hand along the silver band that wrapped around the edge, touching the latches that were firmly closed. They were shiny and felt cool to the touch. She wanted to see inside. “Can I open it, Mommy?” Not getting a response, her small face turned, surprised to see her mom crying. Choked with emotion, unable to speak, the mother nodded her head, watching as the five year old eagerly opened the little blue suitcase. The year was 1972.
Many of my childhood memories are faded and some completely gone, but I remember that day, forty years ago, as if it was yesterday. It is strange how our mind does that, picking and choosing what we are to remember and see in our minds eye. I recall watching curiously and, I have to admit, excitedly at the time, as my mother placed inside two pairs of pants, two shirts and underwear. Every item was new. I was the seventh child born out of ten. I never had “new” before. I could tell, but did not understand why, that beautiful suitcase was causing her so much sadness and pain. Even when she sat my sister and I down on the bed, explaining that we would need to leave for a little while, but promising that she would get us back and that someday we would be a family again. My five year old mind couldn’t comprehend or understand her words but I nodded my head as I stroked the soft blue box. Leading us both outside she walked us halfway to the car, before turning to run back into the house. A kind woman then took us and gently steered us to the waiting car. We sat in the back with each of our suitcases propped up next to us, the silence broken by my older sister crying next to me. I felt panic start to rise as comprehension finally dawned inside of me forcing me to face this new reality. Scrambling to my knees, I looked out of the back window as we slowly drove away from the only home and family we had ever known. I did not cry until I saw my brother, who was trying to run after us. He looked so sad. I wanted him to feel better, so I waved until I could no longer see him.
After driving for a very long time, we arrived in Jackman, Maine, at what would be for my sister and me, the firsts of four foster homes. Hopping out, I grabbed my little blue suitcase, clutching it in my tiny hands as new people approached, the woman turned to the social worker asking where the “rest of the stuff” was before looking in horror at my tiny case when she was told that that was it. I remember not liking the look on her face, and once where there was joy at my “new” items, I now felt a new emotion flood through me. I felt shame. This was all I had and it was obvious to me, even at five, it was not enough.
That little blue suitcase is the only thing I have from that time in my life. From family to family, town to town, it has followed me, even through adulthood. Ten years ago, I was packing to move, and I had spent the better part of the week complaining to who ever would listen, about how many useless items we had accumulated and no longer used over the years. Deciding to tackle the basement, I shuddered at what could possibly be down there. Opening a box that had not been touched since the last move, and was still taped shut, and marked MISC.- I looked inside and caught the flash of a familiar blue. Kneeling down on the concrete floor, I gently pulled it out allowing myself to feel every emotion that was literally tearing through me. Snapping the clasps, the sound transported me back to my childhood and I felt again the pain, greeting it as if it were an old friend
I am not sure how long I sat there, holding the suitcase but there was a shift in me that I cannot even begin to describe. I realized in a flash, that I had unknowingly defined my life by that piece of luggage. Jacob Marley had nothing on me, with all of his clashing and clanging chains, I had a 16”x12”x5” box, weighing me down and Lord, it was heavy.
That was my reality check. A stinking, little, blue, freaking suitcase caused me to stop, pause, and ask my self “is this all there is to life?” Walking down to the basement before I had this moment, and walking back up from the basement after this moment, I had literally become a different person. Just like Ebenezer Scrooge, seeing the ghost of Christmas past, my moment brought the realization crashing down on me, that I was a product of “never having quite enough stuff”. I allowed someone else’s expectations and words dictate to me, who I was and who I was to become because that is how THEY perceived me. In this case - I had nothing so I was nothing. The worst part, I allowed this thought process to continue my whole life in almost every aspect of who I was to become, even my dreams of who I wanted to be. Nothing was as glaringly poignant as my mind’s eye once again brought me back to that day in high school when a teacher (who I adored) wrote on one of my essays “this is good, but we know you will never become a writer.” I believed what she wrote and I stopped writing. After “finding” that suitcase again, I was so angry for so many months. Angry at myself for what I considered “wasted years.” Seriously?!?! ENOUGH!
So, at thirty five, I shifted my thought process and asked myself two questions as I held that, now empty, forty year old suitcase on my lap – What if none of it was true and what would I do, if I was not afraid of what other people thought. My answer was easy, and before the fear could encase me in its sticky, confining, web again, I whispered aloud - “I would write.”
The funny thing about epiphanies is, when you know you need to change, you quickly realize - change is hard work and there are many people who do not want you to change. It took me another eight years to sort out my life into some semblance of order by getting rid of toxic relationships, and figuring out this new me. I stepped out of my box and I opened a store, (it failed and still paying a high price for that one.) The difference being, that I would not allow that failure to define who I was as I had in the past. I took the many lessons I learned and allowed them to make me stronger.
Through my process of healing, I wrote, and wrote, and wrote some more. I filled journals with poetry and short stories. I wrote manuscripts. Some of my work - absolute crap, but some of it I knew, in my heart, was really good. I did not care either way – it was mine! I wrote because I embraced who I was and I had finally given myself permission and allowed myself to be who I was. Every pent up word that had been clamoring to get out of my head that had been stifled for years, flowed out of me.
Through my writing and acknowledgement of my past - I have found a comforting peace I had never experienced before. I started to tell my story and through every imperfection, through every moment of pain and dysfunction that makes up me - I started to see a change happen in other people. Not to everyone, but to some, and that is all the difference that matters.
Life is hard. Life is complicated. Life is terrifying. Life is a beautiful thing.