I pulled back the cardboard flap and glimpsed a small patch of lemon yellow wicker. I knew immediately what it was. I felt lightheaded as the memories overcame me in one big rush of awareness. It was as if a ghost, freed at last from its musty confinement, grabbed my arm and yanked me into a wormhole, spinning me backwards to a time to when parents lived forever.
That plain, brown box humbly housed all my mother's handbags, perfectly preserved and sleeping comfortably between delicate layers of aging tissue paper. I knew these purses. They were lost friends. I could easily recall in clearest detail every one of them and the evenings they represented, decades before, when I was still a young girl and my mother was Cinderella.
Back then, I’d sit on my parents’ bed and leisurely investigate the contents of that night's designated clutch while my mother arranged herself inside the bold blocks and psychedelic swirls of the 70s or, later on, the sparkling sequins and impressive shoulder pads of the 80s. I’d dab lipstick on the back of my hand and peel off a peppermint from a new roll of Certs as she clipped on glittering earrings and stepped purposefully through a puff of perfume. "That way you won't overwhelm the guests with the scent," she'd advise.
Sometimes my mother would let me trip across the room in her high heels, with a floppy hat covering one eye and a dangling purse bumping my shin with every other step.
I’d revel in having my mother all to myself; my brothers finding no interest or joy whatsoever in the process of powder and polish. Absent was the constant commotion that accompanied a house filled with kids. Here there was only Calm, with gentle smiles, relaxed “grown-up” conversation, and a little bit of bibbity-bobbity-boo. The fragrance, colors and piles of pretty things all mounted together to transform this morning’s mother into tonight’s princess.
I ran my fingertips over the various textures tucked inside the box. I remembered vividly the clatter of the bright orange plastic beads and the scratch of the turquoise raffia. I had told my mother to reserve the maroon handbag for Midnight Mass because the rows of crimson-painted, wooden balls looked like cranberries lining up for a garland. All we needed was popcorn, a needle and some thread. I had been hesitant to hold, in my clunky, adolescent fingers, the particularly magical creations that gleamed like jewels. A gold one moved like molten lava from palm to palm and a blue metallic mesh design twinkled from cobalt to teal to midnight depending on where the light slid across it. One bag was dressed in nothing but pearls, one after the other ... surely a treasure like this was much more valuable than anything you could hide inside!
I had used the sunny yellow “picnic basket” to carry snacks for backyard luncheons with my friends. One warm afternoon I swung it in big, windmill circles until the dizzy handle finally had enough of my impertinence and snapped. The streaming wicker arched out of my hand in a soaring bid for flight, only to smack full force into the trunk of a pine tree and fall to the grass with a dull thud. I thought I had destroyed it for good, but here it was, almost 35 years later, waiting patiently for our reunion in a lonely storage unit in the middle of nowhere. It had held up better than I had, the still-broken strap glibly reminding me in my mother's voice to always treat other people’s things with respect and to think before I act.
In January of 2013, I displayed a group of the purses in Boston's Museum of Science Who Collects exhibit. My mother got a kick out of seeing her old "pocketbooks" in a musuem. And yes, they were displayed directly beneath a collection of vintage “air-sick” bags. She was sitting up in her hospital bed when I showed her the pictures and she exclaimed softly, "Oh, my word." Read the first part in Tiny Compartments.