The Blue Duffel Bag: A Journey from Beirut to America
The only keepsake from my childhood is a withered blue duffel bag. Growing up in war-torn Lebanon in the 1980s, I knew the mere sight of the bag meant it was time to seek shelter. Today, the bag rests in my dresser drawer. Its threads unraveling from its pores; its owner, my mother, long gone; its existence a reminder of her promise to always protect her only daughter.
I don’t remember when or why the bag joined our family of two and took its coveted place among our meager belongings in the one-bedroom apartment we shared in Beirut. During the Lebanese Civil War, my mom kept the bag in her closet, tucked between a small hand-carved wooden box and a silver frame containing a weeping picture of the Virgin Mary, always ready to grab during frazzled midnight runs to the bomb shelter.
On those nights, seeing the bag made me feel invisible. I was the only daughter of a single mother raised in a conservative society that looked down upon divorced women. A young girl who envied the disorganized parade of fathers struggling to carry their families’ belongings down the dark and dirty winding metal stairs into the bomb shelter while I watched my mom carry a duffel bag that held a secret too shameful to reveal.
I was two years old when my dad, an architect by trade, left my mom and me under the pretext of searching for the next important job opportunity in America, and never returned. Instead he settled down in Michigan with his new wife. This was our secret. However, the tale that my mom wove to protect our reputation was quite different. She painted an image of a husband who had no choice but to work abroad to provide for his family, of a caring father who would soon come home to carry our belongings to the bomb shelter. At times, her tale sounded so real I believed it. However, except for the occasional letters he sent asking me to join him in the US, my dad existed only on paper and in three black-and-white pictures of the two of us that my mom kept in her blue duffel bag.
At first sight, the bag, with its cylindrical shape crumpled by the thin weight of its contents, appeared worthless. Yet, inside, it protected everything we owned: two heirloom gold bracelets, my estranged dad’s wedding ring, and a diamond ring and cross he had gifted my mother as a confession of his undying love. It also guarded a handful of black-and-white pictures of her deceased mother and an envelope containing our birth certificates in case we became casualties of war. She used the bag as a makeshift bank for her monthly income as a secretary— about $25. Each month, she divided her earnings into small white envelopes—for food, bills, and clothes. Once in a while, if she could afford it, she would give me one or two liras—about a nickel—so I could go to the bookstore and indulge my love of reading.
Most of the time, the bag served as a warning to prepare for the worst. I can still picture my mom pacing around our bedroom at night, waiting for the sound of artillery fire to get closer, occasionally daring to inch her petite and slender body high enough to part the blinds and gauge the distance of the explosions in the night sky. I can still see her troubled face dotted with tiny wrinkles hovering over the bag she placed on the orange bedspread, looking through it to ensure its contents were undisturbed, safe, complete. Once in the shelter, she would hide the bag under a pillow, resting one arm on it while wrapping me in the other. The bag never left her sight, no matter how long we remained there. As soon as it was safe for us to return home, she would carefully put it back in her closet against the white wall between the hand-carved box and the Virgin Mary, lock the closet door, and turn the key twice to ensure it was secure.
Growing up in a war-torn country, I feared the sounds of the artillery but didn’t comprehend the gravity of the situation. Beirut, once dubbed the “Paris of the Middle East,” had become a victim of violence spurred by religious and political conflicts that caused more than 120,000 fatalities in the span of fifteen years—from 1975 to 1990—and led to various militias vying for control of the country. Most of what I knew about pre-war Lebanon came from my mother and the neighbors who passed the time in the shelter reminiscing about the “good old days.” I longed to sleep in my bed for more than two nights in a row rather than sit for hours on end on a mattress thick enough to protect my body from the hard-cold cement yet thin enough to shift under my weight. I wanted to go to school and live like a typical teenager—the kind I read about in teen magazines—rather than gauge my mortality by when our supply of candles, pita bread, and cans of SPAM ran out. That’s when I realized that my hope for a better future was to accept my dad’s invitation to live with him in America, but I feared that leaving my mom would diminish her will to survive.
After all, we only had each other. Our unique relationship was forged by our struggles; by our morning chats while sipping cup after tiny cup of Lebanese coffee; by our friendly games of pinochle in the shelter by candlelight, and by my mom’s praise for every poem and short story I wrote no matter how bad it was. She inspired me to excel and thrive; I encouraged her to survive and laugh. We shared secrets, worries, and challenges and celebrated every milestone with lots of coffee and a slice (or two) of her homemade lemon Bundt cake. When I finally mustered the courage to tell her about my plan, she listened but didn’t question my decision. She knew it was a sacrifice she had to make to protect me.
On my last morning in Beirut, she reached into her blue duffel bag and took out a gold bracelet with an interlocking chain adorned with four tiny jade-colored stones. It was a gift her mother had given her on her sixteenth birthday. She placed it on my wrist and made me promise never to take it off. It was a reminder of the special bond we would always share.
As the ship sailed from the Port of Beirut on a hot August afternoon in 1988, headed to the Island of Cyprus where I would board a plane to the US, I watched my mom’s silhouette fade into the dilapidated city. Ahead my new reality emerged on the horizon—a reality I struggled to embrace at first. I was thrust from the confines of a bomb shelter into a world I knew nothing about, a language I couldn’t speak, a culture I didn’t understand, and into the arms of an emotionally absent father with whom I tried to build a relationship. Over the next few years, I contemplated returning to Lebanon many times, but going back meant returning to a life fraught with struggles and uncertainty. Guided by my mom’s letters urging me to stay the course, I graduated high school, obtained a job as a clerk at a mortgage company while taking college courses at night, moved out of my dad’s house and into my own apartment, and became an American citizen—a milestone that granted me the right to present my mom’s paperwork and bring her to America.
Seeing her at the airport four years after I had left, I expected her to be holding the blue duffel bag tightly under her arm as she had always done, but it was nowhere to be seen. Once in my tiny apartment, she took it out of her suitcase and placed it inside a closet—unlocked, alone, without the protection of the weeping picture of the Virgin Mary. It was as if she no longer needed the bag’s reassurance, as if its contents were no longer in jeopardy. She was safe, and so was the bag.
Nearly two decades later, my mom succumbed to leukemia at the age of seventy-eight. As much as she protected the bag during her lifetime, upon her death she abandoned it without any special instructions. It rests in my dresser drawer, undisturbed. The bag won’t mean much to my American-born daughter; the stories it holds are not hers to preserve. Yet, discarding it means forgetting about my mom’s legacy. So, for now, I remain its keeper, its mission accomplished of keeping me safe. Each of its unraveling threads reminds me of the journey it helped forge, of its owner’s resilience, and her promise to protect and watch over me.
29 replies on “The Blue Duffel Bag: A Journey from Beirut to America”
Beautiful, poignant story detailing sentimental and valuable items kept safe in war and the power of fortitude, perseverance, resilience and love. I treasure the opportunity to read more of this author’s story.
Thank you so much, Sheila. I appreciate your support and thoughtful comments.
A Mother’s love is one like no other. A beautiful, touching and important life story to share. Thank you for doing so. I was captiivated.
Thanks so much, Lisa. I am glad you liked it.
I was not aware of your story but was moved to tears reading this account and for the deep love your mother had for you and the promise of your future. I look forward to reading more of your work.
Thanks so much, Janet.
My dear friend! I know the magnitude of this piece and what it means to share just this. I’m a puddle as I read and so incredibly honored to share our cup (or two) of coffee together each morning before class. All the more so now❤️.
I cannot wait to read the full memoir wherever it is ready (and you are) to share it. You have a tremendous gift in your writing and your mother was right to encourage it, even at such a cost. She would be so proud!
Thanks, Zee. Now you’re making me cry. I am glad I get to share my mornings with you as well.
A beautiful testament of a mother’s love symbolized by the blue duffel bag. Such a beautiful story and gracefully told.
Thanks for all your support & encouragement, Annie.
Delia, knowing your story and reading it are not one and the same. With your own daughter and son your beautiful mother’s legacy lives on. Thank you for sharing; as Ara added your are a gifted writer. Abris oh brave friend!
You’re very kind, Judy. Thank you so much.
Great Story … the greatest love .. A mothers love .. I watched my own husband grieve the loss of his mother , his friend , they to shared special luncheons and talks being the first and oldest son ..he wrote and dedicated a book to immortalize her memory … I too witnessed the special bond my eldest sister had with my mom.. now being the youngest i grasped every moment I could share with my mom as time goes to fast .. I too have her special bag and ring on that protects and keeps her close to my heart . Beautifully written Della .. wishing you much success in your storytelling xo
Thanks a lot, Rita. A mother’s love is indeed very special and should be treasured.
Beautifully written. A loving tribute.
Thanks so much, Pam.
Thanks, Daron. I appreciate it.
So many goosebumps! I love how you were able to tell a tale of such intense love and struggle through a small, unassuming everyday object. This might be my favorite essay I’ve read this year!
Thank you so much, Brianna. I truly appreciate the opportunity to publish my first essay in Literary Mama. Everyone on your team was absolutely wonderful to work with.
Thank you for sharing your story Della. Beautifully written and could feel every emotion through your storytelling. I look forward to reading your future essays.
Thanks so much, Christine. I appreciate it.
This is such a personal story from your heart. It both broke my heart and warmed it. You have come so far from so little material wealth, but from a bounty of your mother’s love.
Thanks so much, Nancy. You’re very sweet.
Thanks for sharing your early life story with us. Beautifully done with a sense of pure love for the family. Your story allowed me to think of my parents and grandparents of their struggles in their early years.
What an amazing story. I was hanging on the edge of my seat, and was so relieved when I read your mom was able to join you after four years. So well told!
I love this poignant tale of your mother’s love and sacrifice. Often small objects from our past carry the biggest weight and hold the most memories.
I enjoyed reading this Della!
What a moving story Della, and so well written. Thank you for sharing.