This summer, we spent time at Thomas Jefferson’s grave at Monticello (and by “spent some time” I mean we walked past it quickly, because we were on an extended road trip with six kids and by that point we were all pretty sick of each other and just wanted to get back to the familiar misery of the rental car). Despite the thirsty children who were bored to death of history and culture and all that fresh air, I managed to take a minute to look at the famous inscription on Jefferson’s grave, which reads “Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and the father of the University of Virginia.” Okay, so those are some big accomplishments, right? But what about the conventional “beloved husband and father”? Or what about the fact that he was both president and vice president? Or inventor and ambassador to France? I think that the gravestone is unique not just for what it contains, but for what it omits, and the puzzle of it makes it something that I find endearing.
As we drove through the Shenandoah Valley later that day, winding our way towards Washington, DC, I wondered what I would want written on my own gravestone. Wife and mother have certainly been my most consuming roles, but I’ve also found lots of joy in my professional life as a teacher and a writer, and lots of enrichment in reading and running. And then, as I turned back to yell at the kids one more time, I caught sight of one of the three suitcases in the trunk.
And I knew what I’d want on my headstone.
“The girl could pack a suitcase like nobody’s business.”
Because you read that right. For a ten-day trip for eight people, we took three 25″ rolling suitcases, each weighing in at around 40 lbs.
No, we didn’t go naked. I only did laundry once. We had clean underwear every day. Through a combination of restricting everyone to a single outfit a day and diligent use travel cubes, I put all three of my daughters’ clothes in one suitcase and all three of my sons’ in the other. When we arrived home, we had approximately one clean shirt each to spare.
I was super proud of myself.
Of course, I did spend the whole time warning the kids away from every souvenir shop on the east coast. “We don’t have room for that in our suitcases,” became almost as familiar a refrain as “it’s your sister’s turn for the charger.”
A couple of weeks ago, I met my mom in New York City for her birthday. I brought a small rolling carryon, half filled with my laptop and papers that needed to be graded. When my mom rolled in a couple of hours later, she had a suitcase more than twice as big. I could chose between running shoes and dress shoes, and she had half a dozen options. When we went to a play, I pulled out the one appropriate outfit I had packed, and she spent twenty minutes trying on different things that might work.
I live my life like I pack my suitcase. Everything is all jammed in there. If my friends want to meet ten minutes later than normal for our morning run, I can’t go– because I can get the house picked up, the laundry started, the girls’ hair done and myself showered and dressed before I leave for work in 45 minutes, but not 35. After work, there’s just enough time to change laundry, grocery shop, and plan lessons before the kids get home, and then every minute is consumed with helping with homework, supervising practice, and getting kids to the places they need to go. If I sit on the figurative suitcase of my life and fiddle with the zipper enough, there might possibly be enough room for one extra pair of figurative flip flops.
But at what cost? Nothing in the bag has room enough to breathe, and we’re always one broken zipper away from total disaster.
Maybe my mom, with her big suitcase, has it right. When we were on our trip and went shopping, she knew she had room in her bag, and I knew that adding a pair of flip flops to mine would require a degree of suitcase Tetris I wasn’t sure I possessed. Maybe there should be some breathing room in the figurative bag, some unstructured time?
Is the ability to jam pack a suitcase, or for that matter, a life, a virtue or a vice?
So I’m back to the drawing board with the gravestone thing. Maybe I’ll ask for one of those awesome old New England skulls with the angel wings. Or maybe I’ll go simple, with just a name and date. Or maybe I’ll ask to be cremated and have some of me tossed on the running trail, and another handful on my favorite beach, and another handful among my books, remaining spread just as thin in eternity as I was in life.
Are you someone who packs in the experiences of life until you’re fit to bursting or are you good at rationing yourself? And if you’re a rationer, teach me your ways.