By Gina Barreca
The Hartford Courant
I have an inordinate affection for suitcases, as did my mother.
We have suitcases that carry our clothes and others that hold our imagination. A handsome piece of luggage will catch my eye more quickly and readily than a handsome face, although I might be attracted by similar attributes: clear outlines, a sense of style, a suggestion of strength and the promise of hidden but real depth. It’s also good if your bags have sturdy lids with a secret combination that lets only you unlock them easily and fully.
Although lightweight, four-wheeled suitcases have changed lives for the better, making it possible for those of us who are not weightlifters to drag our luggage through airports without harming ourselves and others, something ineffable has been lost in the trade we’ve made between the beauty of certain kinds of luggage and mere convenience.
My mom was a woman who never traveled more than the 550 miles between her childhood home in Quebec and her husband’s house in New York, but who nevertheless bought herself a jewel of a green alligator suitcase that she kept in the back of the basement closet, wrapped in a soft cloth. She never used it. Not once. She pawned it before she died.
My mother’s fantasy life involved packing her beautiful, perfect suitcase and flying off to somewhere on the edge of the map. Mine does not.
Although I have traveled extensively, it would be wrong to say that I’ve inherited a sense of wanderlust from my mother’s side of the family, because the very idea of leaving home for more than three days gives me the fantods.
I do not seek adventure by heading for the hinterlands. It’s my husband who likes planning trips to exotic locales. If I had my way, I’d go as far as the back porch and stay there. And for that, you don’t need luggage. You need a tray for the beverages and bowls for the cheese snacks.
Yet, I can almost never let a suitcase or piece of luggage out of my possession. I hold onto them when they’re ancient, damaged or tacky. Usually, donating and discarding items is easy: If I haven’t worn a piece of clothing in more than three years, it goes to Goodwill; if the gorgeous high heels now pinch, they’re given to a younger friend. But it’s hard to let the bags out of my hand.
Right next to me as I type is the heavy, hard-sided, purple satin-lined, wheel-less suitcase I bought 24 years ago. I treasure it as an object. I don’t use it for travel.
When I bought my beautiful purple suitcase, the gesture was celebratory. As writer Barbara Cooley put it, suitcases hold the “promises of adventure, freedom, escape. They carry endings and beginnings, farewells to the familiar and greetings to the unknown.”
“Suitcases are secret places with secret spaces,” argues my friend Dolores. “We put the treasures we ferreted out in a foreign bazaar right next to our dirty laundry. We close the top and tell ourselves our things are safe, but who knows?”
Into our life suitcases, we pack our ambitions, hoping they will be endlessly expandable. We tuck our wishes and dreams into luggage compartments, hoping they won’t be so flattened as to become unrecognizable.
We trust that what’s ours will be returned to us as we travel, that our contents – even if they’ve shifted – will be intact. Remember your combination and all will be well.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” and eight other books. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.