This bag was an embarrassment. Long past its sprightly years, it hadn’t gotten a compliment in over a decade. It probably shouldn’t have even made the trip home in its condition; but there I was, tearing up in front of a garage wheelie bin, marking the demise of a literal sad sack in the most unstately funeral possible for such a well-traveled and loyal partner.
My sturdy Jansport backpack and I were coping fine when this bag came into my life. I was a senior in college, and something unexpected had happened: I’d been asked to Stage Manage my college’s production of A Christmas Carol. This Christmas Carol was a beast – a beautiful musical with dozens of cast members, children, and hundreds of light and fly cues. A professor, rather than a student, had Stage Managed the inaugural production the year previous because it was such a behemoth. I was no Stage Manager, so I agreed with trepidation, knowing this would be one of the most challenging projects I’d ever undertaken. I was in over my head.
To begin my transformation into Stage Manager/honor student, I made two purchases – my first ever mobile phone (this was 1999, and I was rolling with my new pocket flip phone) and a large, blue backpack. Having been overlooked for the entire back-to-school season, it was now on final offer, tucked away on the clearance rack with a $7.99 sticker. There was nothing particularly stylish or even hardy about this bag, but I liked it because it was big enough to carry my massive Stage Manager’s prompt book, along with the books and supplies I carried for the classes I’d more or less be ignoring for the next few weeks. Like it or not, it was going on this ride with me, that optimistic orphan bag.
It was never far from me as I shuttled between my overload of classes, jobs, clubs, production meetings, and rehearsals. It waited patiently as I said good night to cast and crew and closed up tight, carrying on to my shared apartment where I’d attempt some reading and work for the next day. It surely was nearby when, during tech week, I finally cracked and had a hysterical cry to my patient roommates. It sat at my feet in the booth, as I took the helm on headset, night after night, instructing tech cues and hoping everything would run smoothly. That bag knows the truth. I was not amazing, but I survived, and the show certainly did go on. I came out a little bit more confident. That bag held me together.
A year and a half later, it boarded my first international flight with me, bound for Germany to visit one of the dear roommates who’d let me cry (it was college – we all cried). On that trip, it carried my copy of 100 Years of Solitude, which I’d devour in air, and would change my understanding of how a story could be told. It saw the Cologne Cathedral, the remains of the Berlin Wall, and the canals of Amsterdam.
This steady backpack was awarded a break, but roared back into service in 2004, when I employed it to be the bag I’d take to graduate school with me. It was a workhorse on those long days when I’d leave home in the morning, and not return until after an evening rehearsal or night of seeing shows in the city. It’s been stuffed under seats at Broadway theatres, it’s trekked through Brooklyn and Manhattan in every weather, and it has carried the words of Shakespeare, Brecht, Churchill, Peter Brook, Kenneth Tynan, William Hazlitt, and so many other geniuses whose words would blow my mind. It was on my desk when I wrote out a pros/cons list about staying in grad school when I felt so unmoored in my first semester, and it was in my lap on the subway headed over the Manhattan Bridge a year later, when I wondered to myself if I would ever in my life be happier.
I wouldn’t be, at least not for the next couple of years, when I carried handbags, and the weight of a job that consumed me and made me feel less than.
On one of the saddest days of my life, it was there when I decided that I wanted to do something that would have made my Dad proud. I hiked to the top of the “M,” a mountain landmark in Bozeman, Montana, the town where my Dad grew up and where we’d scattered his ashes the day before.
I’d use that bag again when I boarded a plane for Australia. It must have been stuffed to the brim, as I had a 2 suitcase allowance for moving my entire life. It was on my back when I stepped into Arrivals and blinked at the Australian sun for the first time.
Or, that it would again see the friends who already knew me well when I first bought it – this time not in a college in the American South, but on an island in Greece. And, that we’d all know each other in a way that only closeness over time permits.
In my stressed out college student days, neither of us would have been able to see far enough into its future to guess that it would one day carry diapers, bottles and baby wipes for this person who I’m sure I traveled all these miles for.
Sitting in the passenger seat on the way to Jervis Bay last year, I gave my bag’s holes a shoddy repair job with a sewing kit I’d stashed in one of its pockets from a long ago hotel that I don’t even remember. That bought it another few months of hard scrabble service, and I silently dared anyone to laugh at its appearance.
As its disheveled state worsened, I made a plan for honoring its final days. I’d bring it back to the States with me on one last flight, to retire it in the same town where I first employed it 16 years ago.
It made that now familiar trip over the ocean with me, once again tucked under my airplane seat, and at the end of our vacation, I gave it one final outing. My college roommate – the one who really was a gifted Stage Manager and had given me all of her wisdom – our three small daughters holding hands, the bag, and I wandered a wildlife park, not far from where we’d gone to school. It carried waters, snacks, hats, and sunscreen. It carried them well.
It went into the bin the next day. You can’t really bury a backpack or scatter its remains, but the least you can do is thank it for many years of hard service over thousands of miles, and conditions far beyond the call of duty for which it originally enlisted. In an era where we are quick to replace things at the first sign of wear, I saluted every single rip, tear, mark, and scratch that bag earned. It got them the hard way, and I am humbled by its devotion.