The Red Suitcase on top of the burn pile

The Red Suitcase was on top of the burn pile. It was that square make-up kit kind from the 60’s so it balanced easily. Charles and my nephew Eric stuck it there because they knew I was having a problem knowing what to do with it. It was Mom’s.

This summer Charles and I flew to North Dakota to clear out Mom and Dad’s house. I knew it was coming, this task. Mom had died six years ago, Dad this April. While my last visit with Dad was after my brother Bill’s burial last year, details of those rooms and objects were as familiar as when I last lived there thirty years ago. I knew without looking what was at the bottom of every drawer. Without touching, I could hear the heavy thunk sound of each light switch.

The Red Suitcase came out from the back laundry room when Mom and Dad would take a winter trip or go to a cattle sale. I’d see it again when Mom had ‘had enough’ of my brothers and me, or Dad, or just that tiny town… She’d stomp through the house with the Red Suitcase and out the door into her lime green convertible Cadillac then drive to the lake cottage for the weekend. Or at least she’d threaten to. I kept my eye on that suitcase; it was the temperature of that house.

I believe families have one major theme, and that one is enough. Abandonment, boredom, anger, maybe religion or work, or something as subtle as longing becomes the umbrella we tiptoe under. And that one person holds the power to weight the theme in their favor. I also believe naming it is hard to put a finger on. That’s why poems are written about love and missing, trust and forgiving. That’s why I keep looking back over my shoulder to identify that place, the people, and the stories that might embody my own theme in progress.

I’m still not sure of the main theme within that house Mom and Dad built in 1947, but I am sure that the Red Suitcase became a central symbol for me. I noticed and silently watched its movement from the back room to the bedroom, out the door and into the car. While it always returned, it was an object of tension, of my wanting something to be different, wanting calm, availability, wanting more. More something.

The Red Suitcase was an easy target for Eric propped on top of the burn pile. It jumped against the sky after he shot it with the .38 Special we’d discovered in the coat closet. Then we quietly and quickly torched the pile that held much of what we carried out of that house. We burned anything personal that could go up in flames instead of becoming fuel for someone else’s home-story. A pile of one family’s life, facts of being alive, artifacts of one generation’s story heated our skin and stung our eyes. I couldn’t find any remnants of the suitcase among the smoldering ashes, but now finally, I know where it is.

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I wrote this in September of 2007, six years after my mother passed away, a year after my brother passed away, and the year my dad passed away. Since then I have sorted through their granite-lawned winter home in Arizona and have begun to clear out my own basement. My kids are still in high school, but I don’t want them to have any questions about stuff and where I now stand with nostalgia and keeping. Keeping things that are not the life, are not the acts of remembering.