Friday 24 November 2017

Searchers, finders, keepers: when children leave, our keeping is done

An impulse purchase of an old suitcase for her young son caused Miriam O'Callaghan to ponder life's transience


They get lost, the years. One Saturday, you're getting up at five to steal a bit of quiet time, eyeing the weekend sports bags and music cases in the hall as if they were grudges. The next Saturday, you're wondering if it's too early to ring the owners of that baggage in another time zone, or if they're up and out already, getting ready for a match or a concert.

On holidays recently, I saw families everywhere who used to be us: barely teenage boys hanging onto their mothers somewhere between a hug and a half-nelson; fathers with small girls, whose hands neither will ever let go. As we pass those versions of our former selves, I see how my own small girl is still small, has gone from all-pink to all black, back to pink again. This time as a dip-dye in her hair. As she links her dad and they lick their ice creams, in precisely the same way, she is happy to suffer the ultimate teenage indignity: polished Docs. "Poor dad. He hasn't a clue. He took such care over the first one," she says. "I'm the huntsman, he's Snow White. I didn't have the heart to kill him."

On the Sunday, I go alone to a flea market. Stalls laden with costume jewellery, identity cards of men and women long dead, discharge papers from wars won and lost, cryptic postcards from Zurich and Budapest, famished ration books, Fascist party receipts, school reports showing excellence at music and mathematics, bunches of gigantic keys missing their dungeons. Mindful of the time small 19th-Century milk teeth fell into my hands, I make sure to leave any tins and boxes unopened. Behind a trunk I want to buy but can't afford, is an old cardboard suitcase. Covered in stamps, it is redolent of Fellini, passages to America, the clearing of Jewish ghettoes, the train to Youghal for the summer holliers in 1939, and perfect for my son about to make his way in the world. I click it open, and, inside, it is almost perfect. A bargain at €20.

It is a hot day. Even in April, the roses are out, wisteria climbing through tottering pines on what used to be an old pilgrim road. The only shade is in the arcade of a 14th-Century refuge. The lemon-tree seller, smoking, is settling his wares there to keep them cool.

"Do you know everything is mad?" he asks. "People are mad. Even the weather is mad." I agree with him, and as I walk up the hill, case in hand, it strikes me, madly, that I am carrying my son's future. I am bringing it to him. It is empty, ready to be filled. And with what? The case itself will hold treasures: his books, pens, maps, journals, the camera lenses he gets now on birthdays or for Christmas. But what he carries with him to the future is both invisible and unmissable. It has been sourced, assembled, packed one piece after the other over 18 years: kindness, sincerity, gentleness, discipline, courage, insight, the capacity for hard work, outrageous humour, the nose for and impatience with injustice or bullshit. Above everything else, his sense of who he is, simply because he knows about love.

His sister is thrilled with her 1950s black handbag; €10. He is delighted with the suitcase, checks the stamps - central European - wondering who owned it, since it smells of quick thinking, urgency, survival. Apparently.

I imagine a young man, suitcase at his feet, throwing a last letter from a train, in the blind hope it would arrive. And I think how all the owners of the suitcase were, in many ways, living the same human experience of love and hate and hope and fear and joy and disappointment. And death. The only difference being their time, those shattering moments we enter and leave.

They imagined themselves to be the owners of the suitcase, when in fact, they were only ever its keepers. It is the same with parents and their children. They come into what we imagine to be our possession, but in the end, they belong only to themselves.

We love them, mind them, pack them with what we hope, at least, is every good thing. All that will sustain them. When they leave, our keeping is done. They become searchers, finders, keepers themselves.

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