Recently, I recovered from the diaper bag. Before the babies were born, I carried a small purse, containing wallet, comb, lipstick, blush, a few loose tissues and keys. With the first baby came the diaper bag: a vinyl-lined upholstered sack with numerous compartments and quilted "changing pad" filled with so many supplies that I put the Red Cross to shame. As the babies became children, the supplies increased. What started with bottles of stored breast milk, water, instant formula, diapers and wipes spiraled with the addition of apple juice, Benadryl liquid, Arrowroot cookies, toy trucks, puzzles, Band-Aids, antiseptic and changes of clothing.
Once the pram and stroller were no longer needed, a form of the diaper bag remained, using the deep wells and trunk of my Subaru, where one could always find bottles of Gatorade, extra sweaters and sneakers, rain jackets, a beach blanket, folding chair, an emergency auto kit, First Aid kit, loose change, cash and snacks. Children became teens and then the house was filled with supplies -- the "extra" refrigerator in the mudroom, holding every beverage imaginable (with a sign stating that beers were counted daily and all those under 21 would be prosecuted if the count was down), trays of pasta and microwavable meals. I mean, what if I were still at work and someone was hungry?
When we moved to Manhattan and the kids left the nest, it took years not to shop and cook for five. It took years to adjust to the small refrigerator in my typical New York City "railroad" kitchen. No longer the owner of a car, I had to find a substitute where the mentality of always being prepared and never left stranded (perhaps I was a Boy Scout in a past life) prevailed, and so I started carrying a purse the size of, well, the old diaper bag.
I would have fared well on "Let's Make a Deal." Imagine Monty Hall approaching me in the audience and asking if I had a corkscrew in my bag. Got it. How about Epi-pens, Advil, Tylenol, Claritin, Nexium, Tums, a comb, brush, paperback, pen, paper, stamps, Band-Aids, Benadryl cream, Neosporin, sunglasses, cell phone, miniature photo album of the now-grown kids, small umbrella, mints, gum, rolled-up shawl, tissues, Purell, Listerine Strips, water bottle, toothbrush kit and flashlight? Check. I was at the ready, should anyone -- family, stranger, friend -- ask for or need an item which (especially in New York City) can be purchased at a number of 24/7 mini-marts or from a street vendor.
I was developing a sort of Quasimodo gait, as I navigated the city streets. People on the subway shot me dirty looks, as I bumped them with the luggage that hung from my shoulder. Although not one for New Year's resolutions, I made one privately: I had to let go of all the baggage that was literally weighing me down. I needed to pull up the strangling roots steeped in another era, when I was once physically and emotionally responsible for the health and well-being of three other lives, often to the exclusion of my own.
Over the years, I developed a reputation as a result of The Bag. For example, even meeting a friend for dinner typically elicited the statement, "Give me a tissue and a Claritin, would you? I didn't bring my own since I knew you'd have that." And then my friend would take a gloss from her small, neat bag and coat her lips, while I dug into the infinite depths of the heavy monstrosity, so pleased and proud that I could accommodate her need.
It happened when my daughter and I shopped at a DSW in the first week of January. On sale for a mere $19 in gen-u-ine leather, it was a veritable apocalypse. With two exterior pockets for my cell, Metrocard, two credit cards and driver's license (one does not need their Triple A card when taking the subway, for example), an interior zip pocket for bronzer and the essential Love That Pink lipstick, and room for one pair of glasses, tissues, a small comb, and house keys, I took the plunge. I even left my Epi-Pens at home, figuring that if I was so unfortunate to ingest pine nuts or pesto sauce made with pine nuts, a call to 911 would have to suffice. I was riding bareback. It's glorious, although rather a shock to friends and family, who are having a hard time with my change of heart -- not to mention what they perceive as a radical change of persona. They think I've gone mad.
The small bag (and at that price, I wish I had bought three of them in all different colors) is an emblem of freedom. I confess that during the first week of carrying this bag, I felt naked and vulnerable, not to mention irresponsible and negligent. Was I abandoning a family after thirty years of reliability when it came to having every imaginable supply on hand?
Of course, the bag is merely a symbol of feeling unencumbered. There is still that umbilical cell phone. When it rings, and the caller I.D. displays the name of one of my kids, my world stops for a moment as I answer, unable to let the call go to voicemail, unable to assume that the "child" can wait, afraid to be absent in case I am needed. I am scolded if I answer and say, "Is everything OK? I really can't talk right now." I am told I simply shouldn't bother to pick up. I think that one day they, too, will carry a diaper bag, and it will take decades to break the habit. Perhaps, by then, I will be on their caller I.D., and they will feel compelled to take my calls because (if I'm lucky) I'll be old. In the end, I suppose encumbrances remain, regardless of how and when we pare down the symbolic baggage. Right now, leaving for the day or an evening with just my own essential needs is strangely liberating.