I was 8 years old. I had little need of luggage. But something about that old leather suitcase appealed to my imagination. The piece was better suited to my grandparents’ era than my own. In fact, I had found it in my grandmother’s attic. Grams didn’t object, and so the suitcase came to live beneath my bed.
There was an elegance in the chestnut-brown leather and tarnished brass latches. The cracked handle felt firm in my grip and made me feel like I was going places. But I didn’t use the old suitcase before that day.
It was an overcast fall morning in our North Carolina town, and a fine mist dampened the fallen leaves. I was angry. My mother had slighted me somehow, though now I have no idea what sparked my ire. Whatever her perceived transgression, I was upset, and I wanted to make her pay. I wanted to give her a taste of what life would be like without me.
I would run away.
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I stood outside the kitchen door, suitcase clutched firmly in hand. I sported my ratty red windbreaker and gray ski cap, looking the part. “Goodbye, Mom,” I repeated twice more, cracking open the swinging door with my foot the final time, to make sure she’d heard.
At last, Mom emerged, wiping her hands on a dish towel. She gave me the once over. I lifted the suitcase a little just to make sure she didn’t miss it.
“I’m leaving,” I said.
I’d rehearsed for the anticipated reaction. The plan was to let her wallow and beg for a minute or two, and then I would cave after I was sure of her contrition.
“Did you pack a lunch?”
Mom’s question knocked me off balance. Where were the tears? The begging? The pleas? “I said I’m leaving,” I said. “I’m running away. For … ever.” I drew out the dreaded word, sure it would crack her resolve. Instead, she smiled.
“Well, would you like me to fix you something? A sandwich? Bag of chips? I just made chocolate chip cookies.”
“I’m really going,” I said.
“I can see that.”
“Maybe a cookie.” And then, “All right, I’m off.”
The misty rain lent drama to my journey. As I stepped onto the front walk, fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie tucked in my coat pocket, I looked back at our big yellow house. I had called Mom’s bluff and, surely, she would be hot on my heels. I stared at the front door, waiting for it to fling open. I watched the lace curtains in the living room window for movement. Not even a flinch.
And so I had no choice but to continue. I got to the sidewalk and took a right, moving slowly up Fourth Avenue. I stopped at the corner of Fourth and Oak and looked back at our house. I had traveled 150 feet. I had no idea what came next. I took a bite of the still-moist cookie, shoved it back in my pocket, and decided that my mother deserved one last chance to dissuade me. I about-faced and moseyed back by the house, leather suitcase swinging like a pendulum.
Nothing. I got as far as the Effinghams’ next door before deciding that maybe my original direction was best after all. I turned again and eased back by our place once more. Not even a flicker of a curtain. My mother didn’t care if I ran away. Had she ever loved me at all?
A moment later, I was back in the foyer of our home. I put down the suitcase, pulled off my dampened coat and cap, and tossed them on the coat rack. How had it all gone so wrong?
I took the case and started upstairs. All that was left was to bury my head in the pillow and try to sulk an apology out of her.
My mother’s voice drifted out from the darkened living room. I peeked in. She was on the couch, sitting in a way I’d never seen her sit before. She was on one end of it, perched on a pillow, positioned just right for a view out a large window. I stepped into the room, still holding that suitcase.
“I’m happy you’re home,” she said. Her voice was gentle, like hot cocoa on a cold winter’s night. She’d been crying. She managed a smile when I stepped over to her, and my anger and disappointment and heartbreak faded away. For there was my mother on that pillow with a view. And I knew she loved me.
I knelt down and turned the suitcase flat. I pushed the little brass buttons that popped the latches, and then I slowly opened it so she could see what I had packed for my runaway journey: nothing. It was empty.
The old leather suitcase returned to languish under my bed until it was sold in a yard sale the summer before I left for college. But as I watched it being tossed into a stranger’s trunk, I recalled the lesson of that misty autumn day: My mother did love me. She loved me enough to let me find my own way back home.