by Taffy Cannon
I am sure there are people who don’t remember every suitcase they’ve owned in tender detail, but I’m also certain that I’m not the only one who carries on a torrid—if private—love affair with her luggage.
The first suitcase of My Very Own was a light brown squared-off number that I acquired around the time my grandmother took me by bus to Washington DC with the folks from Save the Dunes, for Senate hearings on legislation that would eventually yield the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. (Regrettably the quid pro quo was dredging a deepwater harbor just up the beach for the steel industry.) That suitcase seemed awfully small, though my mother assured me that she could pack for six weeks in Europe in it, which I didn’t believe, though I was smart enough not to argue. I was in fifth grade.
By the time I graduated from eighth grade, there was no doubt what I wanted as a gift: luggage. My wish came true in a big sky blue suitcase with sleek rounded lines and a matching train case and hatbox. The last two seem impossibly old-fashioned now, something That Girl might have brought to the big city. A hatbox? Only Jackie Kennedy and my grandmother wore hats, but a hatbox was something that oh, say, a model, might carry around. Somebody of a certain sophistication.
I was one very sharp cookie with that luggage, even though I really wasn’t going anywhere except on the occasional overnight (with hatbox).
My family didn’t travel much. Carsickness was a problem for both my siblings, and our road trips generally involved a lot of screeching stops so somebody could throw up in the ditch, or maybe just walk up and down by the roadside for a while to regain land legs. When nausea came on suddenly, my mother could lunge from front seat to back in a blur that almost always got a waxed cardboard bucket beneath the chin of the correct child in time. Mom saved up fried-chicken buckets for months in advance of a road trip.
My sleek sky blue luggage eventually went with me to a lot of youth conferences and Hi-Y ski weekends and all the way to Colorado on the Denver Zephyr to the Young Life Ranch. By the time I hit Duke, my suitcase and I had been around, and my train case had travelled overnight by train twice.
My college dorm stored luggage in a basement off limits to students, so in September and after vacations, we would place our suitcases in the hall outside our rooms, and eventually they would disappear down a dumbwaiter. Sometimes it took weeks to get that luggage downstairs, a period in which I observed some pieces and styles that I liked a good deal more than my own, which was beginning to appear a trifle … dated.
Yes, I was lusting after suitcases.
They were navy blue, gently squared off—but with sides that yielded a bit, enough to stuff in an extra sweater at the last minute. There’d be none of the wasted space of those aerodynamic corners on the sky blue bags. When I matriculated, I was a very practical person starting to notice that she carried around a lot of Stuff. Who had, in fact, shipped ahead a jam-packed upright steamer trunk by Railway Express.
The navy bags also seemed kind of classy, or maybe it was that the girls who had them seemed classy. I decided I would treat myself.
I bought that luggage one piece at a time the next summer at Marshall Field’s, paycheck by paycheck. Luggage was not cheap back then, no five-bags-with-forty-three-zippers-for-fifty-bucks, made by folks earning ten cents a day in some third-world country. I was commuting by train to the Chicago loop for an outrageously tedious number-copying job at the phone company. It was quite a rush to get on the southbound Rock Island with a smart new piece of navy luggage, and I did it three times. Large and medium suitcases, along with what would turn out to be my last train case.
That luggage went a lot of places over the years. It was tough and sturdy and well-constructed, and it’s still nested up in the rafters of the garage. The train case bit the dust a long time ago, as train cases are wont to do. One of those bags still has two buttons pinned to its pale blue taffeta lining: one an original McCarthy for President and the other for the aptly-named rock group Albatross, managed long ago by the husband of a college friend.
One day in the 1980s, I looked around and noticed that luggage styles had gotten lighter, and that suitcases were now being made out of fabric, with zippers instead of clasps. And then, of course, I had to have a set of burgundy nylon bags. They served me pretty well, though they had no bones to speak of, and gradually broke all their zippers.
The pattern was established: a set of matching something, followed after a decade or so by a new set of matching something. I got a set of dark green fabric suitcases and duffle bags with wheels, an important new development, before we set out on a cross-country trip through Laura Ingalls Wilder country when my daughter was young.
And around that time, my husband started bringing home vintage Hartmann suitcases from estate sales. Beautiful pieces one and all, I readily concede, but heavy and not one with a single wheel. I haven’t got a clue how to remedy that without spending a fortune.
I wore out the carry-on size of that last set of structured dark green fabric bags after a few years, then found a very serviceable black wheeled carryon that I love and can usually even heave up into the overhead bin, though I sometimes have to balance it on my head. With it, I use a more-or-less matching smaller bag large enough for laptop, purse, a couple of books and maybe a jacket.
Limited space, of course, but at this point in my life I actually could pack for six weeks in Europe in a carryon. And I love being able to walk off a plane and into my new adventure without having to wait around to see if my luggage has gone to Duluth.
I’m going to skip right over that cute little set with the cherry pattern that a friend gave me when she tired of it, and I want to go on record as having never owned anything molded from metal or with somebody else’s name plastered all over the exterior. But I will confess that this entire train of thought arose because I am getting ready to do a spot of travelling and recently saw a very nice four-piece set by a name manufacturer as an eBay Deal of the Day. The price was shockingly low. I could get it in royal blue, too, a new color for me and easy to spot on a luggage carousel in the customary sea of black nylon.
I had no need for new luggage, of course, particularly with that mountain of vintage Hartmanns up in the attic. But just in case, I put the set in my eBay shopping cart.
Where it remained until that Deal sold out, whereupon my set of royal blue bags drifted gently into the Left Luggage Room of cyberspace. Maybe next month…