My daughter Julie has worn backpacks since preschool days. The early ones were festooned with cartoon characters and held minuscule amounts of stuff (small backs can only tote so much, after all). In elementary school she graduated to sturdy packs from L.L. Bean with her monogram on them; these were so pricey that they were made to last until they were in tatters.
The beginning of middle school and high school warranted the purchase of new backpacks, these weighing so much that it seemed she must have gone out to the yard and filled them with rocks—but no, it was just American History, Biology and Algebra I, their pages bulging with facts and figures to memorize. Julie was making her own lunch by now, or buying it in the cafeteria. I no longer automatically checked the contents of her bag for notes from teachers, because the age of emails and texts and class webpages had dawned, and there were much more efficient ways for me to be contacted.
As I watched Jules hoist her mammoth sack onto her still petite frame and trudge out to the bus stop, I would flash back to the little red Sesame Street number she had sported at age four. At those moments I would yearn for the years when her life, like her backpack, was an open book. These days, Julie carried a cell phone filled with friends’ numbers, and a wallet stuffed with spending money from her first job, as a waitress in a retirement community. I hesitated to root through her belongings now; she had given me no reason to suspect anything was amiss, and I knew she cherished her privacy, rare as it was in our big family.
Julie home schooled for junior and senior years, so she took a hiatus from the heavy-laden backpacks, though she still wore smaller packs to carry her sweaters and running shoes. As she approached high school graduation, I anticipated the ritual pre-college shopping trip to come, those “long twin” sized sheets used only in dorms, a shower caddy, a little microwave—and of course a new backpack.
But Julie had other backpack plans. She had her heart set on, and gradually convinced her father and me about, taking a gap year to work and travel. She painstakingly mapped out a three-month European backpacking trek, mostly solo, and saved diligently to fund her adventure. Some people were shocked that we agreed to let her go, but those who knew Jules well knew that she was as responsible as a 30-year-old (and more responsible than many of those). She would stay in youth hostels, punctuating her trip with longer stays with her brother Patrick in Germany, and our former exchange student Maurus, who lived with his family in Switzerland.
And so it was that I found myself in Newark airport on an afternoon in late August, preparing to bid my youngest child farewell. In my hand I held a printed-out copy she’d given me of her 11 country itinerary, complete with the addresses and phone numbers of her every scheduled stop. In my heart, I held her promise that we would Facetime once a day, just to touch base. We snapped photos of our intrepid girl with her newest—and largest yet—backpack, a huge pack from REI. If I had looked into this backpack, I would have beheld a sensible amount of all-weather clothing, a laptop, a Kindle. This would be her portable headquarters for the next 90 days, and would accompany her from plane to train to bus, from Rome to Paris to Vienna.
Could I have climbed into Julie’s backpack that day? If I could have, I surely would have, nestling among the tee shirts and toiletries. I would have held my breath and made myself as light as a feather, so that I would not burden her. But I would have been there, to wander through the cathedrals and museums and city streets with her, to offer her hugs, and company, and extra protection in new places.
She finally turned away from us and joined the line for security, passport and boarding pass in hand. From our angle, all we could see was a giant backpack with legs, moving farther and farther away from us every second. There would be no traveling together this time, and I knew it—just as I could never have folded myself into her Elmo backpack, among the cookie crumbs and crayon drawings. It would have been too tight a squeeze to be wedged between her Geography and Environmental Science textbooks. Even if I offered to hold her phone and wallet, to bring along containers of sesame noodles and cocoa bars, my help would not have been needed or welcomed. I would simply have weighed too much.
I was never made to fit into Julie’s backpack, much as I might wish to. I could only tuck a note in there, sending her off across the ocean with all my love and all my hope (and maybe a little of my fear too). Her mother could not travel with her, but I finally recognized that Julie’s backpack was just the perfect size for her, and always had been.