A Bookbag Named God

08 May 2021

Human hand holding a handle of brown leather briefcase

Bonus Chapter, Linda’s forthcoming book:
LISTEN!
Love is BEING


A Bookbag Named God

“Hey, Sandy-Beach-Del, you must be po-or. Your bookbag is trashed, man,” said the skinny fifth grader with a brush cut and rounded glasses. The spin on my last name, Sandel, was typical of his taunts.

My bookbag was a sorry sight, frayed and falling apart. Bookbags 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, around the bulging middle; an attempt to eke out another year’s use.

Sister Henrianne, our teacher, assigned us seat work and left the classroom to go to the office. “I expect you all to do the right thing,” she said.

I was nervous, as I sat there in my dark blue and green plaid school uniform and blue blouse with the prim crossed-bow tie at my neck. I knew that when Sister left the classroom, mischief happened. I did not feel safe in that classroom of fifty-nine children. For the fifth grade and beyond, my parents moved me from public to Catholic school. I didn’t belong. Compared to my peers, I felt poor, backward, and stupid.

“When I return, I don’t want to hear a sound,” Sister said. 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 at 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. In the nick of time. The grate of the door latch signaled Sister’s return; the classroom fell into silence. 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.

A migraine attacked later that night. Severe pain rammed my head like a hot poker above my eyes and cracked lightning down the side of my nose. I retreated to my darkened bedroom.Ma 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 sooth 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,” Ma said, her voice thick. I leaned against her shoulder and buried my face in the safety of her neck.

Dad worked as a hardware engineer at IBM. Ma worked at home. Money was tight, stretched to cover the needs of five kids, including Catholic school tuition for the three oldest, all girls and two energetic baby brothers. Dad kept a monthly budget in a five and ½ by eleven 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. By the end of each month there would be little, if anything, left. When I started babysitting, Dad sometimes borrowed from my earnings to cover his work lunches or to buy gas. He always paid me back, with interest counted out in nickels and dimes.

I figured I was just going to have to live with the bookbag ridicule.

The sound of my baby brother’s crying rose from the stairwell. Ma squeezed me and stood. “Do you feel up for dinner?” she said. “I made spareribs, 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. Ma stood at the double-oven electric stove in a print dress belted at the waist, minding dinner, something like a meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and fresh vegetables. She turned to look at me and smiled.

And then I saw it on my assigned seat at the dinette – a new bookbag.

“What’s that?” I asked Ma. Behind her dark-framed glasses, her deep brown eyes danced. September light warmed the kitchen, coming in through windows that framed the color of trees dressed for Fall.
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 on 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 in whims or to foolish spending. I was speechless, astonished, that he had sprung for the bag. “It was his idea,” she added.

When Dad walked in the door from work, took off his fedora and removed his suitcoat, 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 by understanding and love.

Something mysterious it was, that moment. A kiss of wonder. A hug of presence. A feeling straight from 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.

This treasure of a memory has been private, tucked into my heart, binding my parents’ love into the beat of my life. This story about it shook me awake, the insistent hand of a mother on a child’s shoulder, on a starry night in the hollows of West Virginia’s mountains where I retreated in 2018 to write Leaning into Curves. A soft voice in my mind said, “Linda, tell them about the bookbag named God.”

I had not thought of my bookbag as God, but it was. 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 bookbag with gold fittings on the handle. I can still smell that God. What I have searched for has been with me all along.

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