I’ve got this of old suitcase down in the basement. It belonged to my father when he came over on a boat from Germany way back in 1926 or so. It’s kind of a brownish color and made out of what looks to be a rattan like material. The handles are wooden and somewhat loose. By today’s standards, it’s tiny. There are no hidden compartments, no Velcro straps, no zippers or strings with which to close and secure things. It would easily fit in an overhead compartment on an airplane, with plenty of room to spare.
I wonder what it contained when it originally made its voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. I wonder how one decides which couple of their life’s possessions would make the journey. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d probably have to say some clothes and maybe a picture or two. Possibly a book.
I wonder what the journey would’ve been like. How long did it take? What did you do when you're aboard the ship? After all, these were the days long before gameboys and televisions and the like. Before the days of instant amusement and distractions, when phone calls were a new and wondrous thing to behold. What was the food like? Did you make any friends? Did you know anybody in America? Where did you sleep on the ship? How many people came over with you? Given time and an ear willing to listen, I’m sure I could come up with many, many more things to discuss.
Somehow, I never managed to ask these questions of my dad when I was growing up. Maybe I took it for granted that these stories had been told before and that they had run their course. Maybe I just didn’t bother to listen. The shame of that is, either way, something is lost.
These days, with nobody left to tell me those stories, I look at the suitcase and wish it could tell the tale. Not some fictionalized Hollywood version of boy comes to America, boys finds home, boy turns to man, boy gets married and lives happily ever after type stories. No, I want to hear the real words of someone I know about what Ellis Island might’ve been like. What settling in Brooklyn, New York was all about? What, if any prejudice you might have experienced being a German-American fresh on the heels of World War I? Did you miss your home and when did America become “home”?
As I said, these days, the suitcase lies in the dark of the basement. In fits of nostalgia, I might bring it upstairs and crack it open. There are no old clothes inside. There are only pictures from the 1930’s up to the present that attempt to tell the story that I want so desperately to hear. Most of them are in black and white and curled like old parchment. Many of the others are Polaroids from the mid-60’s. Besides family members, I don’t recognize many of the people in the pictures.
There’s the old saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words” but in this case, the old saying isn’t true. I need the words to tell me, I need to hear them spoken to me aloud so that I might remember and not have to rely on an image and my imagination to weave the story. When my kid asks questions about the pictures, there’s too many “I don’t knows” for an answer.
The suitcase, over the years, also has attained a musty smell. Not quite overpowering (yet) but definitely not pleasant. I can’t quite put my finger on it but it seems to be old and damp and mildewy. Maybe, at one time, it got wet and sat for years without being opened. Maybe the contents are starting to age and fade. Maybe it’s the smell of memories wasting away.