A Bookbag Named God
“Hey, Sandy-Beach-Del, you must be po-or. Your bookbag is, like, trashed, man.” The spin on my last name, Sandel, was typical for the boy, a fellow sixth-grader.
My bookbag was a sorry sight, frayed and falling apart. Schoolbags back then didn’t have fancy shoulder straps and lots of zippered pockets. They were satchels, carried by handles. My mother had wrapped one of her belts through the handle and around the bulging middle; an inspired attempt to eke another year out of it.
The pond of my sixth-grade class at St. Mel’s Catholic School was stocked with 59 students to one teacher, Sr. Henrianne, a saint to manage that many 11-year-olds!
“I expect you all to be in the right place doing the right thing,” Sister said after she assigned seat work so she could go to the office. I loved her.
A paddle dangled from a metal hook on the chalkboard next to her steel desk. Finished to a shine, the torturer was bored with small holes so that when swung, it could move faster and hurt more. I don’t remember Sister using it, but it was a powerful deterrent. A bright red plastic apple on her desk held pens and pencils.
“When I return, I don’t want to hear a sound.” I hunched over the worksheet and put my No. 2 pencil to math problems.
The boy seized his moment as soon as Sister left. He hopped out of his desk and quarterbacked my bookbag up the aisle with a swift kick. The heavy bag didn’t sail far, but a compatriot, who sat two desks up, punted it further.
Before I knew it, the sad sack was almost to the goal post, Sister’s desk, at the front of the class. If I didn’t retrieve it before she got back, there would be hell to pay. I scooted up the row of desks and hauled my bag back to my seat. Just in time.
The grate of the door latch signaled Sister’s return; the classroom fell into silence. Preoccupied with papers in her hand, she did not notice the bright red flush that had crept into the roots of my hair. I raised my hand and asked to be excused to the bathroom.
My bruised heart wanted a place to hide and heal. In the sanctum of toilet stalls without doors, I cried and threw up.
But I couldn’t stay in the bathroom forever. I caught water in my hand, rinsed my mouth and washed my face. I would not let my peers know how much they had hurt me.
A migraine attacked later that night. I’d started having the headaches at age seven; they excruciated my brain when I was upset or excited. Severe pain rammed my head like a hot poker above my eyes and cracked lightening down the side of my nose. It took me down in my bedroom.
Mom climbed the stairs and sat on the edge of the double bed I shared with my sister.
“Are you ok, Lin?” she asked. “Something happen at school today?” The bookbag debacle cascaded out on an avalanche of hot tears.
The purple percale curtains on the bedroom windows, hand made by Ma, were drawn to soothe my eyes. In the shadows, I could see us reflected in the mirror of a scratched but serviceable hand-me-down dresser. Madonna and child. My tattered bookbag was propped against the side.
“I’m so sorry that happened,” Mom said, her voice thick. I leaned against her shoulder and buried my face in the safety of her neck.
We lived in a neat row of identical bungalows in Garden City, Michigan, a working-class neighborhood; my school was in Dearborn Heights, the “rich” suburb.
Dad worked as a hardware engineer at IBM. Mom worked at home. Money was tight, stretched to cover the needs of five kids, including tuition for the three oldest, all girls, at St. Mel’s.
Dad kept a monthly budget in a 5 and ½ by 11 stenographer’s notebook spiral-bound at the top. Every Saturday, over coffee, in his white t-shirt and work pants, he pored over it, moving figures around.
At the top of each page were a tithe to St. Mel’s, charitable donations, and his savings deposit. His handwriting was like calligraphy, with flourishes, a surprise from a manly man. When he paid a bill, he drew small, tight continuous circles through it as if to emphasize, “Done. Did it. Behind me.”
By the end of each month there would be little, if anything, left. Sometimes Dad borrowed my babysitting earnings to cover his work lunches or to buy gas. He always paid it back, with interest counted out in pennies.
I figured I was just going to have to live with the bookbag ridicule.
The sound of my baby brother’s crying rose up the stairwell. Mom squeezed me and stood. “Do you feel up for dinner?” she said. “I made spare-ribs, your favorite.”
The following day, after school, I raced into the house through the living room with its Danish modern furniture and bright floral curtains. The front door banged.
“Ma, I’m home,” I said as I entered the cozy kitchen. She had an after-school snack waiting – hot tea and cookies. We had our assigned seats at the dinette ringed with chairs that had white plastic bottoms and backs screwed to tube-like silver legs.
Ma stood at the double-oven electric stove in a print dress belted at the waist, minding dinner, probably something like a meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and fresh vegetables. She turned to look at me and smiled.
And then I saw it, the bookbag. I stopped in my tracks.
“What’s that?” I asked Ma. Behind her dark-framed glasses, her dark brown eyes danced. September light warmed the kitchen, coming in through windows that framed the color of trees dressed for fall. “It’s your new bookbag,” she said.
I walked as if in slow motion toward my chair. I ran my hands around the bag, reached in, and felt around the spacious depth. I turned over the handle and spied the price tag. $14.99. Back then, and for us, that was a lot of money. “Oh Ma, it cost too much. We can take it back. It’ll be ok.”
“It’s yours, it’s bought. Thank your father,” she said. Dad was not prone to indulging whims or to foolish spending. I was speechless, astonished, that he had sprung for the bag. “It was his idea.”
When he walked in the door from work, took off his fedora and removed his overcoat, I hurtled into his arms. He smelled faintly of Noxzema aftershave, a minty clean fragrance I associated with him. He took the load of his feet and looked me square in the eye. I thanked him through choked tears.
“I’m sorry you were made fun of at school,” he said. “People who hurt others are hurting inside. It’s best to be kind to them. Don’t ever treat others that way, you hear me.” His voice was Daddy gruff but cushioned in understanding and love. “Take care of your new bookbag.”
Something mysterious it was, that moment. A kiss of wonder. A hug of presence. A beat on the heart of a parent. The presence of a hand that plucked love from the air and made something beautiful out of a childhood injury.
God was afoot. God was compassion. God had showed up as a living, breathing essence.
God had gold fittings and bloomed out at the bottom like an accordion. God was big enough to hold many books, notebooks and writing utensils. God was a fancy-schmancy chocolate-brown leather schoolbag with gold fittings on the handle. I can still smell that God.
“Love is a living, breathing essence that the wise can pluck from the air at will and then like a master artist mold it into something beautiful.” – Syd Banks
I write for the sheer joy of it. And I write for others, too. I’m all in when it comes to writing from the Truth of an authentic voice.
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I do other things, too. A priestess-at-heart and a helper-healer who devoted close to 40 years to counseling and psychology, I now offer psycho-spiritual and intuitive conversations based on an understanding known as the Three Principles. I love putting my intuitive nature, listening presence, spiritual understanding, and counseling experience in service to others. If you can get on the Zoom platform or call me by phone, we can work together!
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