The Custodian of My Emotional Suitcase

Lisa Rumsey Harris teaches honors writing part-time at BYU. In 2006, she won the Heather Campbell Personal Essay Contest with her entry “Honor in the Ordinary.” She just completed her first novel, Watching Treasure Blume, all about a pear-shaped first-grade teacher with a family curse. Check out her world at www.treasureblume.com.


My husband formally asked my father for permission to marry me while they were sitting in the cab of 1979 Brown Ford Explorer. The truck was parked in the my parents’ driveway. I could see them from the front room window. I watched for a minute, and then I went in the kitchen and did the dishes.

They intended to go for a drive, I think. But I don’t know exactly. This is as much as Griffin has ever revealed.

My dad got in the truck and slumped over the steering wheel, rubbing his forehead. He didn’t say anything. Griffin felt awkward to begin with. After all, he had never done this type of thing before. He couldn’t break the silence. So he waited. Finally, my dad looked over at Griffin. “I don’t have the keys to this truck,” he said.

Sitting in an old truck without any keys: how’s that for a relationship metaphor?

The effects of that conversation have been lasting, throughout our marriage, and throughout Griffin’s relationship with my family. This wasn’t any ordinary conversation.

Months before our engagement, I had gone through a major depression that left me suicidal and listless. None of us (including me) knew if I’ d be able to go back to BYU that fall. I showed up the day before school started, surprising my roommate, who was designing fliers advertising the vacancy in our apartment. My parents wanted me to stay home.

But I didn’ t. And within a month, I met Griffin. We knew within two weeks that we would be married—and not in some cheesy reality-TV sort of way, but in the specific-confirmation-from-the-Lord sort of way. (Mind you, we knew early, but we didn’t actually get married until nearly a year later).

My family was cautiously optimistic, especially when they met him. The dog liked him. The grandkids liked him. Even the cranky ancient Siamese cat liked him. But my dad and my oldest sister were still skeptical. After all, critters and kids could be fooled. But this is what won them all over: When I was with him, I was happy. My mom later told me that when Griffin joined the family, they got me back too. And that’s what sold them on Griffin.

Griffin, poor guy, didn’t know what he was getting into. Not only was I the spoiled baby of the family, with two protective older sisters, but I was just starting to heal from my emotional melt-down. The scabs were fresh enough to ooze blood if I picked them. Griffin was vaguely aware of this. I’m too transparent to hide much of anything. But I’d minimized it. That’s the number one rule for man-catching: downplay the crazy.

So, sitting in the truck, my dad had a lot to say. It was different from what he’d said to my brother-in-law seven years before. Family lore records that Dad’s exact words to Tom were “Okay, but I wouldn’t let her marry any Tom, Dick, or Harry.” But there would be no quirky one-sentence answer to Griffin’ s query.

Basically, in that truck, my father took out all of my foibles and idiosyncrasies, held each up to the light, and then lovingly packed all of my emotional baggage into a tight little suitcase. Then he snapped the clasps shut and handed it to my future husband.

The word that Dad kept using was “fragile.” Lisa is fragile. Like an explosive. Or an egg. Or the crazy leg lamp from “A Christmas Story.”

Had I known what was taking place in the truck, I might have stormed out, yanked the door open and kicked my father in the shins.

Had Griffin had any sense, he would have opened the door, leapt out, and run away.

Maybe that’s what my dad thought would happen, and why he conveniently forgot to bring the keys.

But really, fragile? That’s not the adjective I ever want used to describe me. After all, I battled the depression demon, and I won. I felt more like a grizzled war veteran than a delicate flower.

Looking back thirteen years later, I realize my dad was right to do what he did. He knew what I needed in a companion. I needed a rock. I needed Gibraltar. Dad knew that. That’s why he said what he did to Griffin in the truck that day. And the amazing thing is that Griffin stayed. After that, he would become the custodian of the suitcase full of emotion and rawness that I still cart around with me, even in my healthy every-day life. He helps me fold up the issues and tuck them away, just as my dad used to do.

At this point, I have to add a disclaimer. Yes, I know this doesn’t paint me in the most flattering light. No, I do not think that I’m my daddy’s (or husband’s) little princess. And please believe that my relationship with my husband is more complex than it appears here. There have been times that he’s acted as sensitive as a frat-boy (the time he ate a cheeseburger in the delivery room while I was pushing out our second child comes to mind). And there have been times and scenarios in which I’ve been the rock and he’ s had to lean on me. That’s what marriage is, right?

But unfortunately, I’ve bequeathed some of the contents of my mental luggage to my eight-year-old daughter. She has the same emotional tendencies I do. And now, I’m the one who lacks the skill set to deal with her outbursts. Because she’s so much like me, I can make absolutely no sense of her.

This was driven home to me after her first trip to the dentist. Griffin came home early, to complete and utter chaos. Sela, even after a dose of Tylenol, was crying like a deranged raccoon. I had given up trying to comfort her. Instead, I was cleaning the kitchen.

“What’s Sela crying about?” Griffin asked. “I could hear her in the garage.”

“She’s bawled straight for two hours. I don’ t know what she wants,” I said. “She won’t calm down. I tried to hug her, but she pushed me away. I told her that almost everyone has had cavities filled before. She just kept squealing, ‘No one has ever felt pain like this.’ So I told her about my oral surgery and how they had to graft cadaver bone into my jaw.”

My husband looked at me, mystified. “Yeah, can’t imagine why that wouldn’ t comfort her. Seriously. You don’t know what she wants?”

“No,” I said, exasperated. “She just kept talking about how much everything hurt. I told her that her mouth wouldn’ t hurt so much if she closed it. Then I told her about the pioneers.”

Now he was horrified. “You didn’ t.”

“Why is that bad?” I said, starting to get defensive. “Besides, how do you know what she wants?”

He put down his work stuff, and gave me a reproachful glance, like I’d missed an easy answer on a pop quiz. “What she wants is for someone to hold her and stroke her hair, and let her cry until she’ s finished with it,” he said. “What she wants is what you want.”

He walked down the hall, toward our siren-blaring daughter. “I’m sorry. I’m just having a flashback to that conversation with your dad in his old Ford truck.” He turned back, shaking his head. “And by the way, you should never mention the pioneers.”

In the cacophony of sound, I failed to make the connection, even though I felt the sting of his reproach. I continued cleaning (my coping skill borrowed from my mother). But as my hands worked, my mind dug through my subconscious and retrieved the scene: A March day. The sun glinting off the windshield of the brown truck. The profile of my father’ s face, talking earnestly. Griffin, sitting beside him, head bent forward, nodding. What had Dad been saying in that moment?

I turned off the water, and held the dish towel to my eyes. I felt stupid. And embarrassed. But loved. I finished the dishes while Griffin soothed our girl, and tucked her, sniveling, into bed. It didn’t take very long for him to calm her down.

21 thoughts on “The Custodian of My Emotional Suitcase

  1. At my house we call this the “Mitchell principle.” When a child is the most unloveable, offensive version of himself, he is asking for love, usually in the form of physical touch.

  2. And by the way, you should never mention the pioneers.

    This might be the very best line of the whole post. And that’s saying a lot.

  3. You and I have had similar trials. And I’ve been blessed with such a husband as yours. Without exaggeration, I consider that my husband has saved my life.

  4. What a good man. God bless him.

    My uncle had a similar conversation with my then-fiance (which I didn’t find out about until years later). I didn’t have a father in my life at that point. My uncle warned my husband that when he married me, he would get the whole family with me. I was mad for a while when I found out, but then I realized that it was fair to warn my husband what he was getting into. He still chose to jump. (and doesn’t seem to regret it too much)

  5. So beautiful! This is perfectly true. So many guys want to try to solve our problems and give advice when all we really want is to be able to let it all out.

    And for the record, I heard so many pioneer stories growing up that it took me 20 years to finally get over my resentment of them.

  6. I loved this–especially the line about how to get a man by playing down the crazy!

    All of this is so true. I will be reading this again to remember how to care for my daughter.

  7. I’ve often described my husband as a rock. And he often goes above and beyond and brushes my hair to calm me down. Sitting with my head in his lap, crying, with him brushing out my hair, it’s some of my most comforting moments. I’m glad you found your Gibraltar. Every woman needs one of those.

  8. the one so like me she’s a mystery is my oldest- really, how are we supposed to parent kids like those?

    reminding myslef that her dad does it better than me because he’s perfect for me brings such little consolation

    thanks for this- i’m glad i’m not alone

  9. I read this post yesterday and I loved it. But I didn’t realize what an impact it had on me until I found myself still pondering it today. It has encouraged me to be more patient with my daughter, more grateful for my husband and more gentle with myself.

  10. My husband was literally my saving grace as well. Although no one ever gave him a heads up, my family was too busy with their own psychosis to notice mine.

    I owe my husband so much for staying by me. Although it wasn’t a fun way to start our marriage, getting through it intact gave us a foundation for the years (and eternity) to follow.

    I appreciate the way this post evokes an understanding of the healthy interdependence needed in marriage.

  11. Thank you for all the kind comments. So much of my writing life is spent in isolation. I’m so glad this resonated with some of you.

    My husband would like me to point out that the only reason he ate a cheeseburger in the delivery room is that 1) My mom brought it to him 2)I’d been in labor forever and he hadn’t had a chance to eat.

    I’d like to point out that 1)I know I was in labor forever, and I hadn’t had the chance to eat (not that I wanted to) either and 2)That episode completely ruined Wendy’s food for me.

  12. That is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. I absolutely love it. Thank you for the powerful imagery of a suitcase with a custodian. Well done.

  13. Knowing that we all downplay the crazy makes this even more enjoyable – because there are very few people who we let in close enough to see it. You helped me see myself through your experience and be grateful for the people in my life that love me in spite of my emotional baggage. Thank you for sharing!

  14. I have friends with wonderful husbands like you describe. Of course, I realize things are complex as you have said. If I had a husband, I would want one like yours. One of my friends has said that no level of her craziness has ever even phased her husband or something to that effect. She gave up sugar and I think that helped. She also had a lot of baggage from a mom with mental problems. I do so appreciate knowing that there are happy marriages out there even in marriages with obstacles.

  15. Oh Lisa!! I enjoyed reading your essay and getting a glimpse into your life. I think we could be good friends if we lived closer.:)
    I think we need a Rumsey reunion!!! It has been a while…

  16. I used to downplay the crazy. Now I don’t even have any desire to do so, and that makes it really hard to go on dates, because I disappoint them and myself. I hope I can find my Gibraltar.

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