Monday, June 21, 2010

Love in a Paper Sack

by Robert Fulghum, It was on Fire When I Lay Down On It

The Cardboard box is marked “The Good Stuff.” As I write, I can see the box where it is stored on a high shelf in my studio. I like being able to see it when I look up. The box contains those odds and ends of personal treasures that have survived many bouts of clean-it-out-and-throw-it-away that seize me from time to time. The box has passed through the screening done as I’ve moved from house to house and hauled stuff from attic to attic. A thief looking into the box would not take anything – he couldn’t get a dime for any of it. But if the house ever catches on fire, the box goes with me when I run. One of the keepsakes in the box is a small paper bag. Lunch size. Though the top is sealed with duct tape, staples, and several paperclips, there is a ragged rip in one side through which the contents may be seen.

This particular lunch sack has been in my care for maybe fourteen years. But it really belongs to my daughter, Molly. Soon after she came of school age, she became an enthusiastic participant in packing the morning lunches for herself, her brothers, and me. Each bag got a share of sandwiches, apples, milk money, and sometimes a note or a treat. One morning Molly handed me two bags as I was about to leave. One regular lunch sack. And the one with the duct tape and staples andpaper clips. “Why two bags?” “The other one is something else.” “What’s in it?” “Just some stuff – take it with you.” Not wanting to hold court over the matter, I stuffed both sacks into my briefcase, kissed the child, and rushed off.

At midday, while hurriedly scarfing down my real lunch, I tore open Molly’s bag and shook out the contents. Two hair ribbons, three small stones, a plastic dinosaur, a pencil stub, a tiny seashell, two animal crackers, a marble, a used lipstick, a small doll, two chocolate kisses, and thirteen pennies.

I smile. How charming. Rising to hustle off to all the important business of the afternoon, I swept the desk clean – into the wastebasket – leftover lunch, Molly’s junk, and all. There wasn’t anything in there I needed.

That evening Molly came to stand beside me while I was reading the paper. “Where’s the bag?” “What bag?” “You know, the one I gave you this morning.” “I left it at the office, why?” “I forgot to put this note in it.” She hands over the note. “Besides, I want it back?” “Why?” “Those are my things in the sack, Daddy, the ones I really like – I thought you might like to play with them, but now I want them back. You didn’t lose the bag, did you, Daddy?” Tears puddled in her eyes. “Oh no, I just forgot to bring it home.” I lied. “Bring it tomorrow,okay?” “Sure thing – don’t worry.” As she hugged my neck with relief, I unfolded the note that had not got into the sack: “I love you Daddy.”


And also – uh-oh.

I looked long at the face of my child.

She was right - what was in the sack was “something else.”

Molly had given me her treasures. All that a seven-year-old held dear. Love in a paper sack. And I had missed it. Not only missed it, but had thrown it in the wastebasket because “there wasn’t anything in there I needed.” Dear God.

It was a long trip back to the office. But there was nothing else to be done. So I went. The pilgrimage of a penitent. Just ahead of the janitor, I picked up the wastebasket and poured the contents on my desk. I was sorting it all out when the janitor came in to do his chores. “Lose something?” “Yeah, my mind.” “It’s probably in there, all right. What’s it look like and I’ll help you find it?” I started not to tell him. But I couldn’t feel any more of a fool than I was already in fact, so I told him. He didn’t laugh. He smiled. “I got kids, too.” So the brotherhood of fools searched the trash and found the jewels and he smiled at me and I smiled at him. You are never alone in these things. Never.

After washing the mustard off the dinosaurs and spraying the whole thing with breath-freshener to kill the smell of onions, I carefully smoothed out the wadded ball of brown paper into a semifunctional bag and put the treasures inside and carried the whole thing home gingerly, like an injured kitten. The next evening I returned it to Molly, no questions asked, no explanations offered. The bag didn’t look so good but the stuff was all there and that’s what counted. After dinner I asked her to tell me about the stuff in the sack, and so she took it all out a piece at a time and placed the objects in a row on the dining room table. It took a long time to tell. Everything had a story a memory, or was attached to dreams and imaginary friends. Fairies had brought some of the things. And I had given her the chocolate kisses, and she had kept them for when she needed them. I managed to say, “I see” very wisely several times in the telling. And as a matter of fact, I did see.

To my surprise, Molly gave the bag to me once again several days later. Same ratty bag. Same stuff inside. I felt forgiven. And trusted. And loved. And a little more comfortable wearing the title of Father. Over several months the bag went with me from time to time. It was never clear to me why I did or did not get it on a given day. I began to think of it as the Daddy Prize and tried to be good the night before so I might be given it the next morning.

In time Molly turned her attention to other things… found other treasures… lost interest in the game.. grew up. Something. Me? I was left holding the bag. She gave it to me one morning and never asked for its return. And so I have it still.

Sometimes I think of all the times in this sweet life when I must have missed the affection I was being given. A friend calls this “standing knee-deep in the river and dying of thirst.”

So the worn paper sack is there in the box. Left over from a time when a child said. “Here - this is the best I’ve got. Take it – it’s yours. Such as I have, give I to thee.”

I missed it the first time. But it’s my bag now.

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