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In 1997, before fuel surcharges, bomb scares and 9/11, air travel was still an adventure. Carriers had a liberal baggage policy; the allowance from Manchester, England, to Vancouver was two suitcases each. This was regardless of their size or weight.
There were five of us, so we needed 10 suitcases.
Most of our possessions were already making the sea voyage across the Atlantic, via the Panama Canal to the Pacific Northwest. I hadn’t involved my mother in the process of packing up the house. The movers would have downed tools and gone home if she had been there to exhort them to “roll up underwear and stuff it into every shoe.”
Mum would also have been upset that each item stowed in boxes was wrapped in wax paper, then again in thick brown paper to protect our life from the possibility that water might intrude during the voyage. To her it would mean taking up too much space, costing more for the necessary cubic footage.
“It’ll take you forever to unpack at that end,” she volunteered over the phone. “All those wasteful layers of paper to undo.”
“Mum, we’re moving 8,000 miles away with three children under 10. I should think it will take us a while to unpack.”
Then, before my brain was truly engaged, I heard myself saying: “We have 10 suitcases to take with us; I could do with some of your expert packing.”
Mum maintains that nobody can pack as well as she can, and she’s probably right. Before we left the country, my mother took our suitcases into custody. Intruding would have afforded the view of a middle-aged woman in floods of tears, cursing the original packer, pouring all her distress at our imminent emigration into repacking socks, underwear and my potato peeler.
It was then I had to explain to her why we had 10 dead men’s suitcases.
When we’d decided to emigrate we didn’t own any. A friend had an uncle who might be able to help. Uncle Alec was in the “house-clearing” business – a delightful euphemism for a business that denudes the homes of the recently deceased for a fixed price.
He took me to an outbuilding behind his warehouse. As he pulled open the squeaky door, I couldn’t help gasping. The building was packed to the rafters with suitcases, valises, portmanteaus, trunks, train cases and neat little hat boxes. Between the tottering piles was a path just wide enough to walk.
“Are those all ... ?” I started to ask.
“Yes,” he said, “These are all dead men’s suitcases. How many?”
“Ten, please.” My voice sounded small.
“Small, medium or large?”
I recovered my composure sufficiently to say “large, please,” in a voice now far too loud. I think I was emotionally unravelled by the sight of so many discarded bags – lonely, abandoned and in their hundreds. The sight of a large collection of items that belong to the deceased is powerful and poignant. It underscores the fragility of life and relationships.
“Ten cases, large!” Alec shouted into the depths, and a tiny man came out of the gloom with two of the largest suitcases I have ever seen on his head. I stood there, again with my mouth open, until all 10 cases were stacked beside me.
“Thank you,” I said to Alec. “How much do I owe you?”
“Nothing. My niece has told me all about you emigrating to Canada. She also told me why you are going all that way. It’s the least I can do.”
For the first time, but certainly not the last, during our exit from the U.K., I started to cry. My daughters, all three of them perfect, the younger two autistic, were Canadian citizens like their father. I was 40 and moving away from everyone I cared about in order to give my eldest child the chance of a normal life. Our younger two would have access to better social programs in Canada, so she would not have to put her life on hold as I have done.
The heart-rending pile of luggage and the kindness of Uncle Alec had ripped a huge hole in my carefully constructed emotional armour.
Mum has never forgiven me for transporting her granddaughters to a new life. Putting their belongings into cases of dubious provenance just added insult to the keenly felt injury.
“What will they think of you when you get to Canada?” she asked.
This was one of the last things my mother said to me at Manchester airport as we waited to board the plane on emigration day. She had poured all her maternal feelings into repacking our cases so we could, as she put it, fly out of her life. She’d invested each fold and roll with her blessings and her inconsolable sorrow at the loss of her only daughter and three grandchildren to another continent.
Neither she nor I realized the advantage that 10 ancient suitcases plus three tired children would bestow on two tearful adults as we arrived in Vancouver.
As we teetered through customs like a Dr. Seuss image, the officer looked at us, registered the late hour on his watch and sneakily encouraged us to move through a little faster.
“Go on, go on!” he exhorted, looking around quickly to make sure no one was watching. And we did, into a new life, a great life, the best life.
Elizabeth Houlton Schofield lives in Pitt Meadows, B.C.