My In-laws were in town.

They didn’t come often, mainly because the desire to make sure their golden child was living a godly life was at odds with the deep-down knowledge that he wasn’t.  How could he?  He was living with a jezebel spirit.  The bi-annual visits to our home turf were fraught with tension, made worse by the fact that we had to hide the liquor bottles.

In an effort to pick neutral activities that wouldn’t expose our true day-to-day life of dive bars, profanity and R-rated movies, we found ourselves in Franklin, TN.  Franklin is safe.  Franklin has antique malls, which my mother-in-law enjoyed deeply, second only to eggs-in-a-basket at Cracker Barrel between Sunday services.

We weren’t completely different, she and I.  I too can spend hours in an antique mall, as long as it is the jumbled kind, full of random stalls ranging from prim doilies displayed on elegant sideboards to towering stacks of milk crates full of random junk.  Mildew, dust and the smell of long-ago fills the nose.  It’s a smell that can automatically identify a place, as fresh cut lumber identifies the hardware store and leftover grease and cigarette smoke marked our favorite bar.

The fifth store of the day was one of the higgledy-piggledy ones, and I happily escaped from the group and headed into the maze of stalls.  I was going through a pottery-barn/shabby chic phase (I know, don’t judge) so when I saw a small, brown suitcase that would fit exactly under our side table, I snagged it.

Suitcase

I popped the latches and opened the lid.  Inside the purple silk-lined case were stacks of paper.  Shuffling them around, I found a pile of black and white photos and some hand-written letters. Underneath a brittle paper map of Paris were scores of film negatives.  Holding a negative against the fluorescent light that buzzed overhead, I saw a man wearing a military uniform posing in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. As I continued to dig through the contents, I couldn’t believe no one had been bothered to go through them…if only to sell the individual pieces.  It’s common for antique stalls to have a basket of old photos and postcards, priced at a couple of dollars a piece.  I always poke through these, but can never bring myself to pay top dollar for family portraits, no matter how delightful and candid they are.  The more I dug, I suspected I had the remains of someone’s life in my hands.

I was eager to start piecing it all together.  Like snuggling down with a new book, you could end up anywhere.

The paper tag attached to the handle of the case told me this life could be passed into my safe-keeping for $10.

Unbelievable.  Mine.

I snapped the latches shut and carried the case back to the family unit. As I walked, the contents shifted, and the weight of the person inside pulled at my shoulder.

The typically British guilt over even the slightest of windfalls had my stomach in small knots.  Slick-palmed and trying to keep my grip on the smooth handle of the case, I approached the cashier. I was going to my doom.  I envisioned her popping the latches, raising the lid and slowly turning the case around to face us.  Presenting the evidence, my downfall, with a raised eyebrow. “Ello ‘ello…what do we have here, then?”  My pious in-laws; smug witnesses to their heathen daughter-in-law, shaking their heads as I was led away in cuffs.  The crime: Stuffing a $10 suitcase full of $100 worth of over-priced antique mall ephemera.

On the offensive, I opened the case on the counter before the cashier had a chance to do it herself.

“All this was in the case…” I started.

I needn’t have worried.

Shrug. “Okay.  Your total is $10.96”

———————————

The suitcase stayed on my lap all the way home.  I didn’t want to open it again in front of my family.  I didn’t trust them.  They wouldn’t understand why I would be so excited about sifting through a stranger’s old papers.  I also wanted to keep the mystery a little longer, scared if I took a second look I’d discover it was just a mishmash of un-related crumbling papers..not a mystery at all.  I kept thinking of that ‘deep-breath’ moment right before you crack open a new novel. Turning the first page is an exciting prospect: you may soon be off on an adventure..or you might just have a dud.  I didn’t want anyone around when I realized I had bought a dud.

Later that night, I took inventory.  The same man appeared in the majority of the photos.  The same name was on several papers.  Every thing seemed to be connected but the pieces were also wonderfully obscure and random.

Cover Artifacts

I must admit, I gloated a bit.

That evening, I got as far as sliding each item into it’s own protective sheet, trashing an entire semester’s worth of theater history notes and carefully inserting the clear sleeves into an old 2″ UNCG binder. The suitcase went under our side table.  It fit perfectly, just as I’d thought it would.

Over the next couple of weeks, I would flip through the binder, hold each negative up to the light and re-read the anonymous letters again and again.  I would unfold the map of Paris and study the numbers that had been written on the map in colored pencil, struggle to re-fold it properly without tearing the weak folds and slip it back into it’s page protector.

———————————

It’s been 10 years.  I no longer have in-laws.  The suitcase and I have lived in 5 different houses.  Now the case resides in the downstairs bath, filled with medical supplies you don’t usually keep out: bottles of hydrogen peroxide, wart-remover cream and a portable heart-rate monitor.  The binder has always sat on a shelf in my various home offices/craft rooms.  It was occasionally flipped through, though never shared with anyone.

It’s finally time to sit down and turn the first page.  I don’t know where this story will take me, but I hope to learn something new. I hope that the man from the suitcase has some living family members that would want to be re-united with Grandpa John’s photos and letters.

I’m done hoarding his life.  Want to come along?

77 thoughts on “The Story of the Suitcase

  1. https://www.facebook.com/groups/genealogybloggers/

    Here is the link. We are a fun group and I know they’d love to read The Man From The Suitcase. But now that you’ve hooked me, I see no more posts since Oct. – Please keep going. You should consider turning it into a book. Did you know you can slurp your blog into a book? I did that with my 52 week Ancestor stories I wrote last year. As long as the admn on our FB group sees you blog and genealogy on your facebook page, she will click you in. LMK if you don’t get in.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Karl, I have made a few already! The most surprising discovery has been the connection I now feel to this family. I wasn’t counting on that when I started, but it’s helped me tell their story as opposed to their ‘facts’. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. As a historian, I find piecing together the elements of past lives like a good mystery book. You find a letter here, a photograph there; and like putting a puzzle together, the pieces begin to show the picture of the person to whom they once belonged.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. COOL! I didn’t actually think of the possibility for an antique to reveal such good history. that’ll be part of my goals now: leave a story to everything i own (and not just on this blog) and soon impart my story to others that’s like leaving a permanent mark of your life in the world omg

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This story seems really amazing. There is something very intriguing about a good mystery. I am not certain as to whether or not this is fiction or nonfiction, but I think it would make a great novel regardless. I also agree with one of the comments above me, this does vaguely remind me of the movie “Amelie”

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I find the 10-year delay in tackling the material understandable. In your case it’s a total stranger, with all the mystery surrounding his life, but I’ve had my late mother’s personal day by day diaries and many photo albums on hold for even longer. I’m still wondering when I’ll gather the courage to put the pieces together…

    Liked by 2 people

  6. The most profound paragraph for me was: “I snapped the latches shut and carried the case back to the family unit. As I walked, the contents shifted, and the weight of the person inside pulled at my shoulder.” The story in that suitcase was begging to be told by you and I’m happy you have shared this initial connection with us. Can’t wait to read more.

    Liked by 2 people

      • Of course they were good. In fact that was one of my most interesting and enjoyed efforts at genealogy. I’m 17 and after my grandpa passed away 4 years ago, I found a postcard in his accounting diary. It was from his friend in some village. Last year, I bugged my dad into taking us there, and man was I surprised. The old man almost has a fan following there. They were so hospitable, didn’t even let us check into a hotel.
        I met so many relatives whose existence was unknown to me. Made many new friends as well. One of the most enriching experiences of my short life.

        Like

  7. What a beautifully written post. I am so excited for your adventure. I, too, share the guilty pleasure of sifting through old photos in antique and second hand stores. I like to make up stories of how their lives may have been, and even put a personality to the face. I can’t wait to read more.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. “I too can spend hours in an antique mall, as long as it is the jumbled kind, full of random stalls …” – hey! me too, me too! So happy to read your blog, you are indeed a kindred spirit judging by the way you look at the world through your writing. If word press had not pressed you, I never would have found your blog, am so glad they do that. Yes, I would love to know where that read leads you – and on board following you, but I haven’t been on this site for years (I was going through hard times and fighting depression), so have forgotten how to add other blogs to my blogroll. If I get help, I shall add you and find you and return. The postscript is a great way to yourself and with the world. Wonderful writing, please keep writing 🙂 (I mean to come read your old posts sometime) (O and by the way we do not have these kind of shops in India, here when people die people, throw away their stuff, no one likes to bring home dead people’s stuff, and most often they burn it all after or during cremation putting a final end to it all. We Indians are not good with history, we definitely as a culture are not ‘hoarders’ I guess. Amazing how cultural differences influence what we value, share and cherish, no?)

    Liked by 2 people

  9. By the way, do you know, are you aware that there is a movie which shows the journey of a young couple when they accidentally discover a dead persons letters in a house they rented, leads to amazing experiences and discoveries that makes for a great story. Find it and watch it, I do think you would enjoy it a lot.

    Like

  10. We found a suitcase also. It was left to us by my wife’s aunt. Aunt Dorothy and inside was mementos of her life. She was an artist at the 1939 Worlds Fair and did art work in her own booth Lives faded by time and yet interesting after so many years.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Fantastic read! I’m in the middle of clearing a extremely cluttered family home, finding a locked suitcase full of medals, Army medical disclosures, letters, coins and stamps. Cannot wait to see what I can find out!

    Liked by 2 people

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