(This writing piece is from a prompt to write about an object that has spanned time across your life.)
I found the bag at TJ Maxx. It hung from a rack like a barnyard chicken dangling by its feet. It was a plain bag, unassuming, among the other chic designer bags, painted with palettes as bright and shiny as a wood duck’s head. This bag, the color of a Hershey’s milk chocolate bar, was boring in comparison. What made it interesting were the two shoulder straps stitched to its backside. Ahh, a backpack. That makes sense, I thought at the time.
I can’t remember why I bought it. There would have been a reason. Maybe before my honeymoon to St. Lucia? I’m not a leisure shopper. Never have been. I shop like a sniper. I start the process by identifying what item it is that I need. Do I need a dress for a wedding? For a funeral? I knew exactly what store to go to. I’d hop in my car and drive to the shop. Like a hitman, I’d get in and get out, with the target subdued and in the bag. That’s how it went back “in the old days” at least, before Amazon infiltrated living rooms across the globe, as easily and quickly as as respirator pumps nitrous oxide. These days, I’m just a sniper with the clicker.
My aversion to shopping sprouted early in my youth. My earliest memories include being drug through various malls for hours at a time. Shopping was an all afternoon event that left me spent like a sweaty gym sock. I remember crawling underneath circular racks, leaning against the base that held the carousel, like the trunk of a tree holds all its branches in one place. I stared at the ankles walking past in pairs, poised above their shoes, studying the ones stalled in front, listening to the hangers sliding over one at a time, inspecting each item before moving on to the next.
Eventually a pair of shoes would stop short, almost leaving a skid of tread in the carpet. An arm would cut through the clothes like a knife piercing layers of a cake, flipping them up like bangs, exposing my wiry frame squatted underneath . My mom’s face would appear, her lips a mere crease. Get out from under there, right now. She never yelled. She didn’t have to. Her words didn’t mince, despite hissing them like a ventriloquist, her mouth a steely trap.
As the years rolled past, my dislike of shopping, and malls, only intensified. The mention of an “outing” incited so much dread, it almost crossed into the territory of panic. Even hearing the words, “I just want to make a quick stop at the grocery store on our way home” was enough for me to helicopter into a tailspin. The problem was our different definition of quick and our different styles of shopping. Mom is more aligned with the leisurely side. She savers every possibility before her like a scientist, examining each prospect in earnest. She can stretch out the experience to her satisfaction.
As a kid, I didn’t have a choice about the shopping. Reaching adolescence, it became the bone I chose to fight over, asserting my independence and opinion on the subject. The requisite “before school” shopping trips became full blown wars. My repudiation only incited more backlash, the result being shopping-induced PTSD. Just ask my husband. If it isn’t one-click shopping (a modern-day SSRI), I’m not doing it.
I may not remember why I purchased the plain brown bag, but I do know when it came to be. Its new existence is recorded in single photograph, the bag starched and crisp placed behind Cracker on the bed, eight-weeks whelped, his head as big as the rest of him.
The bag has outlasted Cracker. It’s still in use today, although I have to admit, I’m self-conscious about the disheveled appearance it casts when slung across my shoulder. After twelve years of daily use, I gifted the bag a facelift, trusting three Amish brothers to do it. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder, like identical paper cutouts behind the counter of their repair shop, which was also the local feed store, somewhere in a field in the middle of Leonardtown, Maryland.
The exterior leather flap, like a hatchback door that buckled into the hardware at the bottom, had slowly unstitched from the top over the years, retracing its steps to the beginning of its journey with the needle. Finally, half of it drooped, like a flag against a flagpole, until only the buckle was left attaching it to the bag. The brothers also replaced the thin leather shoulder straps that had frayed and separated, like dried paint that cracks and bubbles peeling away from soggy old planks.
It returned momentarily revitalised, but entropy is real. The last six years has weathered the bag harder than the first twelve. The flap is long gone now, having succumbed to the scissors to remove its dragging state like slicing off bunched skin that comes from sliding across asphalt on your knees. Once removed, the zipper across the crown was now exposed, the leather on either side of the trestle as delicate as tissue paper. There is nothing left to stitch to. Yet, the bag limps on, unsightly, somewhat grotesque like the hunchback of Notre Dame.
The bag has inspired a lot of finger pointing and questions over the years. Battered and bruised, it wears its collection of stories like a rosette. That bag has traveled the world. It has endured the transpacific flight to Australia and New Zealand three times, stuffed under the seat in front, and packed with maps printed on copy paper, lists of phone numbers and addresses, three or four power bars (because you never knew), Xanax (because that much I did know—16 hours in one seat?!), and a book.
It’s been to England and Ireland more times than I can count, stuffed with a raincoat and a Barbour oilskin hat, and in the afternoons, a bottle of champagne as it trekked around the cross-country course at Burghley. That bag has sat silently on the floorboard at my feet while I zipped down the Autobahn at 100 miles an hour. It made the trek across the border into Canada three times, always spending a week at Bromont, packed with enough currency to buy a few bowls of poutine from the food truck on grounds.
The bag has driven past the Cotswolds, stopped at Vere and Clea Phillips, and had a cup of tea, or a Hot toddy, with just about everyone in Ireland, because let’s face it, they’re really friendly people. It spent a dozen winters in Aiken, mostly living on the bench seat in the dually, always ready for the next adventure. It made the rounds in the south of Spain, carrying a sweater and a rain coat, sunglasses and boxes of antihistamines to fight off the illness that slapped me off my feet. The bag survived a marriage, and a divorce, and it has lasted long enough to see me come out the other side of it all.
Oh the stories it could tell! Sometimes I wish the bag could talk, reminding me of other adventures, now forgotten. I used to say that about Cracker. I imagined he would sound like the Yoda of dogs. But thinking about it longer, I decided, maybe it’s better that he couldn’t talk after all.