Atlanta Magazine - November 2010 - Pink Suitcase Sisters (Preview)
 
November 2010

Bag Ladies (Preview)

Forget Bunco. Hit the road with the Pink Suitcase Sisters.
By Betsy Riley
 

When you travel with the Pink Suitcase Sisters, expect to be stopped by airport security.

Marjorie Wilson—dressed in a lavender linen pantsuit, her hair afrizz with the August humidity and the color of “whatever box” she grabbed last—is resigned to the delays. “I’m always pulled because I’m the ultimate opposite of a terrorist,” she says with a shrug. Once, when she was traveling home from Williamsburg, TSA swiped her hands for traces of explosives. She started asking how the test paper worked, as the guards grew ever more exasperated. But she’s a teacher. Occupational hazard. “I wanted to tell my students,” she says.

You can follow security’s logic: Check one unassuming schoolteacher for every two young men of Arab descent. Stop the Pink Suitcase Sisters—conspicuously innocuous in their capri pants and sensible shoes—and you’ve met the whole morning’s quota of harmless.

As predicted, Marjorie is late arriving at the far end of Hartsfield’s Concourse C, where the rest of us are awaiting our flight to Seattle. But the fifty-nine-year-old recent retiree takes the pat-down in stride. She makes allowances.

In fact, that’s the first thing I noticed about this Marietta-based women’s travel club of solidly middle-aged women: They have learned to make allowances.

It’s hard to faze this seasoned bunch. One woman has lost two husbands, the first when her fourth child was three months old. There are twins who have each survived breast cancer—twice. Members have husbands with Alzheimer’s, children with special needs, and chronic diseases. Nancy Michaelson, sixty, has multiple sclerosis and sometimes relies on a walker. No one is more gleeful than Nancy in describing last year’s cruise off the coast of New England, when thirty-foot waves and seventy-knot winds caused the group’s ship to list—draining the pool down the steps and dashing Swarovski crystal and Lladró porcelain across the gift shop. You would think she’s describing Six Flags’ Great American Scream Machine. This is the best ever! I love this! The ladies took snapshots.

When a prospective member expressed reservations because she was on dialysis, the group’s cofounders, Traci Hildreth and Kathy Lowery, urged her not to worry. “We’ll find you a kidney,” promised Traci. “For the right price, Kathy might not need hers.”

Honestly, I’m not sure that’s an exaggeration. The sisters have tried to save lives before, ferrying members to chemo sessions and logging countless volunteer hours for the American Cancer Society and Blue Skies Ministries, which serves children with critical illnesses.

Perhaps this group is so resilient because its common bond is a determination to move forward. Women join because the nest is empty, to make friends outside of work, to see places they’ve never been, or to recover from a divorce or loss of a spouse. If not now, when?

I joined out of a reporter’s curiosity, picturing an adventurous crew wearing pink boas and drinking appletinis. I figured the club would make a novel distraction after a hellacious year during which my father died of cancer, my beloved mother-in-law passed away from complications of a stroke, and my own mother nearly succumbed to pneumonia—all while I was dodging layoffs at work, sending my sons off to college, and coping with other midlife fallout. I was seeking recreation, not reflection. But my studied professional reserve started to crack almost from the start.

I watched as Sondra France, another new member, met some of the sisters. Her husband had passed away in 2007, and she was ready to start traveling again. Tentatively, she would mention his death to her new acquaintances—as if accustomed to people treading lightly around a widow. The gals were sympathetic but nonplussed. I received similar measured responses to my own losses.

The nonchalance was oddly liberating.

It’s not that these women don’t care. They simply refuse to let their tragedies—or yours—define them. Maybe it’s just the wisdom of maturity. By age forty (or maybe forty-five), you realize that every child will not qualify for the gifted program, you will not win every promotion, L’Oreal cannot prevent fine lines, and you can always buy larger jeans. Sometime between when your children start driving and when your parents stop, you have to let go a little. Life is not—never was—under your control. Like a riptide, you can swim with the current and pray for the best, but there’s no heading directly for shore.

Whatever the reason, the Pink Suitcase Sisters are first-rate traveling companions. They always have reading glasses and plenty of hand sanitizer. They don’t whine over lost luggage or an overdone steak. If they don’t dwell on your problems, don’t take it personally. Put on your big-girl panties and get on the bus.


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