Now that summer’s over and kids are back in school, I’ve got backpacks on my mind. Specifically one rolling purple backpack, and here’s why. It remains my symbol of lifelong learning. Of course there is a story behind it, so read on.
Eighteen years ago, I was at my brother’s Passover seder table where he asked his large gathering an “ice breaker” question, intended to help us build familiarity among the group. Straight from the Passover story of Jews exiting Egypt, my brother, who doubles as my Rabbi, asked, “Imagine yourself leaving Egypt, and you could only take one item. What would it be?”
People were very thoughtful, and their answers mostly centered on sentimental memorabilia: photos, diary, Shabbat candles, a bible that had been passed down. And then there was my response. “A basketball,” I said without a shred of doubt. It drew a mix of laughter and curiosity until I explained myself and proved that wine was not a factor in my unusual response.
The logic behind my pick went like this. We would be traveling with three young kids, and they would be hot, bored, hungry and probably irritable. I needed something to distract them, and basketball was our game. Even without a court, we could pass the ball back and forth and otherwise preoccupy ourselves. It was an answer born in practicality just like my husband’s subsequent answer (“a leatherman”). Birds of a feather, right?
I am remembering this odd yet rich moment decades later because I realize my answer would be different today, and not just because my grown kids no longer need a basketball. At sixty-one, and having experienced the loss of my mother, my perspective has changed.
Today, my answer would be, “A purple rolling backpack,” and it would be said with the same conviction that “basketball” was said 18 years ago. This backpack was given to my mom when she enrolled in an adult Jewish Studies program at the ripe age of 80, 20-plus years older than her colleagues. One week into the program, her classmates gifted her a rolling backpack because the books were heavy, and they wanted to make sure she stayed standing. In short order, they valued her just like her children. They were soon to discover the many ways she was inspiring — full of wonder, appreciation and questions about things big and small.
Here is something big she never understood. Why and how did the Shah of Iran get deposed? She wanted an iPad (which she actually never learned to use) just so she could Google away on the topic. She settled for an explanation from my son and then would do a “rinse repeat” every time she saw him.
Here is something small she wanted to understand. “Why do my grandchildren seem so busy and focused, as if they are adults carrying the world on their shoulders? Why do my children seem to be having a second childhood — tennis, travel, getting dogs late in life?” It makes one wonder how small a question this really is.
Back to the purple rolling backpack, I loved that it was purple. Bold, daring — the right color for an explorer. I loved that it was on wheels to remind us that no matter how much we totter, we still have places to go, things to learn. That my mom’s colleagues gave her this gift meant they were as open to her as she was to them, which I consider the proverbial cherry on the sundae.
The purple backpack was fitting particularly because of who my mom was. She never went to college. She was an excellent student and a gifted pianist but she traded it all in to marry my Dad (he was worth it), help run their corner grocery store, and raise six children. She learned outside the box of conventional education— the same way we see millennials and Gen Z doing today.
Now I know that the backpack would not have traveled well on the sand, and this would be a particularly good time to suspend disbelief. Still, the backpack in the desert would remind me of a woman who endured some tough challenges — her parent’s divorce and depression-era poverty for example. Through it all, my mom maintained a sunny optimism and immense curiosity.
So why bring a purple rolling backpack that wouldn’t actually roll in the sand? It is my symbol of lifelong learning and spunk — just the tools we would need to weather a tough exodus. This answer will last the duration.