As I watched my dad walk up the steps of our deck awkwardly carrying a blue suitcase, I realized that he had finally remembered. One of his friends had offered the suitcase to him months ago, after his son had found it in an attic he was working in, and my dad had finally brought it home. I dashed outside and said I could take it, eager to study the contents. He handed it to me carefully, and I regretted the offer. It was much heavier that I had anticipated.
I placed the dusty old suitcase on my dining room table. Holding my breath, I pushed the rusty brass buttons on either end. Both latches snapped upwards. The smell of mildew filled my nostrils, and I coughed instinctively.
On top of the pile of things inside lay a scrapbook.
The brown pages were rippled, and it was filled to the brim. Putting it aside, I took out everything to see what else was underneath. There were magazines sent to a Pittsfield address, artwork reproductions, postcards, a Hancock driver's license (so old it was printed on paper) and an endless supply of newspaper clippings.
I rifled through issues of Ladies Home Journal, the dates ranging from 1897 to 1929. After studying the advertisements for Chanel clothing and Wamsutta bedding, I picked up the scrapbook. Almost every page had newspaper clippings pasted on it. I found many wedding announcements, obituaries and church events. There was even a small article about a performance at the Colonial Theatre in 1903.
After flipping through a few pages, I gasped. In front of me was The Berkshire County Eagle, dated April 17, 1912. Only one of the original 20 pages was saved -- the cover. The story was called "News From Ship Bearing The Survivors." I was face to face with an original newspaper from three days after the Titanic sank.
I was nervous to touch it, as if it would crumble entirely under the weight of my fingers. Once I felt assured I would not damage it, I slowly flipped the page. Behind that paper lay two more dated April 19. Each firsthand account parroted the next: that "practically" every woman was saved, and that there was no panic on board.
The description did not match how I had imagined the event, basing my assumptions from James Cameron's movie. One aspect of the article was familiar to me: that the orchestra on board played until they no longer could, and the ship sank. What I find almost unbelievable is the fact that someone held this newspaper in his or her hands just as I was holding it, probably a little less delicately, 101 years ago.
It's amazing how much I have learned about my suitcase owner fromwhat he or she saved. Art and music were undoubtedly important. I found a program listing the Berkshire Festival of Chamber Music's performances in 1919, another for a concert at the Colonial in 1921, and more newspaper articles then I can count about local performances.
At least 10 envelopes held artwork reproductions, each containing a "Lesson in Art Appreciation" by New York University professor Bernard Myers.
In a class on "introduction to the novel," I recently wrote about "Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury. In his futuristic world, books are outlawed, and firemen are in charge of burning every one that they can find. The main character, Montag, begins to steal books in order to rescue them. Bradbury's story begs us to answer the question: What would we do to preserve knowledge? The answer, however, is dependent on another question: How much value do we believe it has?
There is no expiration date for when a novel loses its relevancy. There is no time when the cover story, an obituary, or a wedding announcement in the paper no longer matters.
When I asked to speak to the man who gave the suitcase to him, he told me that his friend is serving in the military Afghanistan. His son found it in a local attic and was given it to take home.
But whoever owned my newfound suitcase kept the things they did for a reason. It is probably the same reason my mom tears her favorite articles out of magazines, and why I keep some school books after the semester has ended, because we all have certain knowledge that we find important to remember. After a while, the things we hold onto become part of us, part of our story.
I don't know whether the person saving these stories hoped that one day someone else would treasure this suitcase. But while I spend time looking through what it held onto for years, I can't help but think: What would my suitcase look like? What do I want to save for future generations?