A little girl in a gingham dress and apron holds a smiling raccoon on the cover of the diary. The furry bandit is clutching a pink flower in its paw; a happy little bird is perched on its tail.
“Memories Are Forever” the journal declares.
There’s a lock on the front but the tiny key has been missing for decades. Scotch tape reinforces the battered binding, worn from years of opening and closing, scribbling and revisiting the shy girl’s secrets on its lined pages.
The first entry is dated Sunday, Feb. 13, 1983, the day she turned 10.
Today was my birthday and I ruined it! I had bloody noses so I ruined swimming with daddy. I love being with daddy, we both have birthdays on the same month. I didn’t get to have lazonia today either, but mommy promised she’d make it this week.
She scribbled notes to herself in that puffy pink book that made no sense, words of self-deprecation and loathing on what should have been the happiest of days. She grew into double digits while shrinking inside, always shrinking, apologizing for who she was and what her shortcomings were doing to those around her.
While the girl penned her innermost thoughts, the truth as she saw it, her mother packed her bag and placed it by the front door again. The faux leather case, its sides slightly caved in, was a near-perfect metaphor for her middle-aged, desperate inclination to be something she was not. “Maybe I’ll go away and find three good little girls and be their mother instead.”
The suitcase typically stayed for days, sometimes longer. The girl never dared touch it, to see how heavy it was or unzip the side and peek in. She hung her head in shame for the disappointment she was. She felt terrible for her mother, who had to suffer so unfairly for her ungrateful children.
Monday, Feb. 14, 1983
Today I wrote a letter to mom. It’s Valentine’s Day and I know she’s had a rough time. I wanted her to know how much I really love her. Because sometimes we forget to tell her that and she feels down. When I got home Nonny had sent me a card with $10. She always gives me money, I wonder why? Today I got to have lazonia. Happy Valentine’s Day!
When she packed her own suitcase for a trip, the little girl’s father showed her how to roll her clothes instead of fold them, how to fit more in and keep wrinkles down. She and her sisters were taught to be good packers, never bringing more than they needed. They always had to leave things behind they wished they could take with them.
“I could get so violent, and I hated myself afterward. I couldn’t control it,” her mother would tell her daughter years later about why she’d wanted to leave so many times. She spoke of being overwhelmed with mothering and angry at her husband, hating herself for the painful punishments dispensed again and again, the rage she had learned from her father, passed down like poison. They’d be better off without me, she’d thought.
She’d be better off without us, the girl thought, lying on her twin bed with the rainbow sheets. She never pondered what her mother needed to bring with her in that suitcase by the front door, only what she wanted to leave behind.
Tuesday, Feb. 15, 1983
Today I felt like screaming. I didn’t finish my Brownie things or cleaning my room. I didn’t work on my class diary and I didn’t get to bed on time. I never should have asked to stay up til 9:00 because I can’t get to bed by 8:30!!!!
Sometimes the suitcase was quietly put away, and a relief would settle over the household. Twice it left with her mother, just briefly, but for those hours the girl’s world spun out of control, the inevitable nightmare having come true. If only she’d been more helpful, more thankful, more loving, more in tune with what her mother needed. But it was too late. She’d failed again as a daughter, a person, a girl.
Without knowing it she’d packed her mother’s suitcase full of her guilt and her shortcomings, stuffed it with carefully rolled scraps of self-loathing and regret. Don’t wrinkle the regret, it’s all you have. The one chore her mother never asked for help with she’d completed unwittingly anyway. She’d packed her mother’s suitcase with all the reasons, spoken and implied, the matriarch must want to leave. Mommy’s little helper.
Three decades would go by before she’d finally get the nerve to ask the question she’d never even thought of as a child. What was in the suitcase, Mom? The answer, like a soothing balm and a sudden slap, made heat crawl up her neck and tightened her chest with something indistinguishable. Anger? Relief? Love? Pain?
“Pictures of you girls.”