Over the Limit
When I was twelve years old, my mother booked us Amtrak tickets from Chicago to Boston, and I begged her to bring along our family dog, Moses. We were going to New Hampshire to see my mom’s side of the family, to a house snuggled up against the base of Black Mountain for a week’s worth of nature, and I couldn’t stand the thought of Moses missing out on so much running, hiking and swimming. I petitioned so vehemently for him to come with us that I sometimes remember the trip as if he had been there, but he was not. He stayed in the Midwest, and we barreled east in a sleeper car.
My mother’s unwillingness to bring Moses on our trip baffled me at the time. He was a good dog, quite calm, and – apart from being another 130 pounds of need – he wasn’t a hassle at home. What I didn’t take into consideration (in fact, what I failed to take into consideration throughout my entire childhood) was that my mother had enough to haul from Madison to New Hampshire already, without a Clifford-sized dog whose only useful contribution was bringing in the newspaper. She needed to somehow migrate me, my four-year-old brother, and my fifteen-year-old brother, all of our duffle bags full of clothes, our train-entertainment bags, and the contents of a small pharmacy across the country.
Travel and vacation logistics were always cumbersome for my family. My older brother required a wheelchair so large it often didn’t fit through doorways, and so heavy it once crashed through the ice on Lake Mendota. With the wheelchair came at least one boxed case of three dozen cans of the nutritious liquid Ensure, my brother’s food, which my parents fed him through a plastic g-tube that went straight into his stomach. With the Ensure came an extra g-tube, in case my brother ripped his out of the hole in his side in rebellious glory. We needed to bring at least two packs of adult diapers, plastic mats for the bed, and medicines which my brother took five times a day. The medicines were organized into a five-by-seven weekly pill sorter. And of course we needed backup medicines.
What with my brother’s outrageous pharmaceutical entourage, offspring spanning the ages of four- to fifteen-years-old, and the ordinary frustrations of cross-country travel, it is little wonder that my mother didn’t want a dog who outweighed any of us to join the fun. Even on earlier vacations, when my dad helped balance out the adults-to-chaos ratio, we were a serious logistical challenge. On airplanes, we never grew out of the “adults traveling with young children” early boarding group, but I remember airplanes as a nightmare. One plane trip, my mother sat with my older brother, whose entire body had gone temporarily rigid and was therefore unable to fold at the waist for the airplane seatbelt, while I sat covered in my younger brother’s spit-up and discovered my gag reflex. For ground transport, we tinkered with a maroon VW Eurovan to install first a lift out of the sliding side door; later, we added a ramp up through the trunk. We later traded up to a van that was actually built for this kind of thing.
Moses, of course, rarely made it on long-distance vacations. It’s embarrassing that this ever surprised me. There was an invisible threshold, one that surpassed my comprehension of travel: We could take everything we knew we needed, up to a point, but a giant domestic dog did not make it under the weight limit. Something about him – his bones, muscles, or all that smooth, long, red-orange fur – was the thing we could not take.
In The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family buys an old truck and loads up everything they own. They pile this truck with two small pigs’ worth of salted pork, a bucket of water, a tent, four mattresses, “the overalls, the thick-soled shoes, the rubber boots, the worn best suits, the sweaters and sheepskin coats [. . .] print dresses and shawls, the black cotton stockings and the children’s clothes – small overalls and cheap print dresses,” a tool box, “arm-loads of folded ragged blankets,” cutlery, dishes, kitchen appliances and a dresser drawer. Ma, Granma, and Al Joad sit in the front of the truck, and then the other ten family members – seven grown men, two children, and one pregnant woman – pile up on top of the luggage on the back of the truck. As a last-minute addition, a dog hops on top of the load.
Even though the Joads bring one of their dogs, like my family they sense the limitations of what they can carry. They can take the dog, but not the chickens. They can take the pork, but not the squealing pigs. They allow the preacher to climb aboard, but not the one-eyed junkyard man. Some of these decisions feel arbitrary (Isn’t a chicken more useful than a dog?), but others seem obvious (the preacher is known and well-liked, while the junkyard man is an irritating stranger). When we pack to travel, especially long distances, we suddenly have to organize all the crap in our lives into categories of need and luxury. In the Joads’ case, this was a permanent move, one which they hoped would keep their family alive. But even in flight, with hunger at their heels, the selection of their belongings mattered.
I spent the central years of my twenties working with refugees, who like the Joads moved with the somber knowledge that they were forsaking any parts of their past – material or incorporeal – they left behind. One of my major responsibilities was to meet new arrivals at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport and walk them down to baggage claim to collect their luggage, the only possessions they owned. One of the first questions I asked, every time, was: “How many bags?” Even without an interpreter, that question was never misunderstood. Some families from more affluent backgrounds brought so much luggage that it did not fit in my car and we had to pack the extra bags into taxi cabs. There were many others who told me that everything they had brought was in their modest carry-on briefcases. The majority of people, I think, came with one checked bag per person.
Most refugees’ luggage travels in black duffle bags large enough for me to fit in, with their names and case numbers painted on the side in white block letters. We picked up those bags at baggage claim and rolled it on airport carts to the parking garage, stuffed it into the trunk of my 1994 Volvo 240 and then I drove the travelers to their new homes in the United States. Since these duffle bags were purchased with the express purpose of a one-time move, they often ripped at the seams; sometimes their owners unzipped them to check on the contents. Either way, I more often than not learned what was inside of these bags, the carefully selected pieces someone had chosen above others. Some bags were full to the brim with fragrant red and orange spices, others full of specialized cooking appliances or traditional coffee paraphernalia. One bag was full of nothing but multi-colored slippers. One man brought with him the shattaf and hose from his bidet. These items might seem mundane until the moment when an airline loses the bag that holds them. Then, it hits: These are someone’s slippers, and they’re slippers from home. As humans we have always moved, shifted between continents, state lines and apartments. What we bring with us is a part of ourselves.
Still, there is a limit to what we are willing to carry. I hit my breaking point in college when, after a perfectly nice winter break, complete with a blanket layer of snow, I tried to bring way too much on the train ride back to school. I could barely get my things onto the train, but worse was when we arrived at Union Station in Chicago and I faced the long walk down the platform. Even today, my fingers remember the pinching weight of the plastic bag handles supporting the handmade quilt I brought, and the crook of my elbow remains wisely suspicious of the corners of any dense, hefty cardboard box that may contain a sewing machine. Although I was righteously boycotting taxis throughout college and had even refused my mother’s offer for cab fare, I rode back to my apartment in yellow- and black-checkered shame. It was defeat.
Finding my limit spurred on a slow, new change: Instead of seeing how much I could strap to my sides, I began to take a genuine enjoyment in packing light. In India, I packed my guitar case full of clothes and then kissed my beloved guitar good-bye. It had fit on the journey east, but heading home it was too much to carry. In Boise, fleeing a stale relationship, I abandoned a half-finished oil painting, my only artistic endeavor of that kind. I have an intense desire to jump on top of the Joad family’s truck while it rips down the highway, my fingers grabbing everything I can find and gloriously pitching items off the side into the wind. I regularly do not purchase things I like, for the sole reason that I don’t want to carry them home. When I receive gifts, I am often disappointed, especially if they’re large and I will need to cart them back to my apartment. Apart from a few exceptions, the satisfaction I get from not bringing things has come to vastly outweigh any satisfaction I could get from bringing them.
This is all fine and good, of course – Who cares what I bring or don’t bring with me as long as I always remember deodorant? – but packing is one of those things that no one thinks about until it is upon her. “What kind of packer are you?” doesn’t come up in first dates, second dates, or even twentieth dates. But what, and how much, we take with us when we change location is a serious part of our personalities. Even after you compromise with a new lover about shower curtains, pesco-vegetarianism and not-quite-retired stuffed animals, how and what you pack looms in the distance. I highly doubt, furthermore, that most people are willing to change what they put in their suitcases, not to mention the suitcase’s size.
Recently, I was spiraling toward an over-packing meltdown from traveling to four continents and requiring clothes for four starkly different trips. I needed culturally appropriate office-wear to teach a series of seminars in Hangzhou, China, where I could expect weather consistently over ninety degrees and intense humidity; long sleeves for interviewing and writing in Kenya, where it was winter; formalwear for a Catholic wedding in Chicago; and please-like-me summery dresses for a vacation with my girlfriend’s parents in France. After I finally, grudgingly agreed to bring everything in a regular-size suitcase (which was already beginning to cause my blood pressure to rise), I stood amidst terraced tea fields in southeastern China while my girlfriend visited a recycled glass factory in Nairobi.
It was a rare opportunity for my girlfriend; not just to buy beautiful, hand-blown glass in Kenyan Shillings for our Brooklyn apartment, but to stand in a room full of glass and not have me there. Had I been standing there, I would have oohed and ahhed appropriately at all of the lovely glass and wistfully chosen my favorites; perhaps a tiny, clear-glass cream pitcher and a vase for flowers for the living room. Ultimately, I would have decided to get something small as a gift for my mother, and left with my mother’s gift bundled neatly in my purse. I would not hold it in an extra bag. It would never be worth it to take any more than that on the plane, as it was cumbersome, heavy, and it might break. Besides, it was just stuff. I didn’t need it.
My girlfriend had cleverly scheduled this visit to the Kenyan glass factory for a week before I arrived in Nairobi. I imagine the sheer devious, gleefully shining eyes she wore while in the glass shop while she perused, selected, and purchased $140 worth of glass for our kitchen and as gifts. A week later, I arrived in Nairobi to be presented with a 40-pound box full of glass.
“Admit it,” she cajoled, “When are you ever going to have the chance to own hand-blown glass made out of recycled bottles from the streets of Nairobi?”
Honestly, I would rather miss the opportunity than carry the glass, and we both knew it.
“I think you’re really gonna love it.” She was impossibly excited.
“Uh-huh,” I said.
I had no doubt I would love it. But did I also want it to “accidentally” get chewed up by goats? Absolutely – I would have paid the goats. We hauled that fucking box — plus an entire suitcase of souvenirs that she swore were “perfect for Christmas gifts” — to the Nairobi Kenyatta Airport, back and forth between the Charles de Gaulle airport, and finally from JFK to the Air Train to the A subway line to Jay Street-Metrotech to the R line to our subway stop. Then we lugged the box uphill to our apartment. There was a point where we were aboveground on the A line, zooming westward from the airport toward Manhattan, where it was clear that we were actually going to be able to get home without taking a taxi. And then, even then, I wanted to break the train window, to lob that box out of the train. Part of me is glad that I didn’t, because my girlfriend may well have dived out after it, and we now have an adorable little glass cream pitcher. But, let’s face it: The rest of me still thinks it sounds reasonable to frantically ditch that damned box.
The limits to what we can take with us are rarely ideal. The Joads were limited by the size of their truck, and its need to crawl over mountains while still burdened with their belongings. My mother, I’m sure, measured bringing a dog along against the limits of her sanity. My personal threshold is highly selective, but I couldn’t refuse a loved one standing and beaming proudly over a box of glass. If not for the mercy of Swiss Air, which capped us off at two bags per person, I cannot start to fathom how many boxes, tables and souvenirs would have come home with us from Nairobi. And, really, I don’t want to know.
When I pack, I first consider the bag I would like to bring. I choose between an old canvas messenger bag with a growing hole in its back-left corner; my petite backpacking pack which can fit under the seat of an airplane; and my black leather backpack, which is heavy because it is leather but which I love dearly. I assess how many books I will need, given any wait time or non-automobile transit time. I choose a pair or two of pants I trust, and an assortment of interchangeable layers. I pack my laptop, because as a writer I sold my soul to it years ago and now it has to go with me everywhere. I take a pen and a notebook, my wallet, and some miniature toiletries.
I particularly revel in packing gifts for others; they make people happy and I love it when a bag gets lighter. My girlfriend likes to pack with bags which are a size too large, so she can bring back extra items. Her foresight, however, has more often than not revealed me as a lapsed convert: I almost always turn to her as we’re packing, preparing to head home after a trip, and ask: “Do you have space for one more thing?”
Margaret Redmond Whitehead Prior to becoming a writer in Brooklyn, New York, Margaret worked in domestic refugee resettlement as a caseworker. Her work with refugees informs her work as a writer, and she is currently working on a literary nonfiction book about refugee family reunification.