There was this purse I saw, and I thought it could change my life, and maybe it will. I’m not usually a purse person, possibly because of my grandmother on my mother’s side. My mom was petite and stylish and maybe even a little bit vain. She was fun and kind and considerate of the feelings of everyone, even the woman pouring her coffee at the restaurant and the guy pumping her gas. This was back when guys pumped your gas. For you. Routinely. Because you were female and they were male and they worked there.
We are not sure where my mother came from, because her mother was a bit prickly. Not horrible, like the chain-smoking, verbally abusive bad mothers in fiction; just prickly. She’d visit and bring you a present, but tell you how you should be grateful for it. She’d send twenty-five bucks for your birthday, but the card said to be sure to let her know what you spent it on, and don’t squander it away. When I was a senior in high school, she praised me for my nearly straight-As report card, and then told me to be careful because I was getting chunky. (I weighed 119 pounds at the time.) She once voiced relief that my sister was attending the US Naval Academy because maybe among so many men, she’d find a husband who would overlook “all those awful freckles.”
I don’t know what dysfunction in her own upbringing caused her to lace her compliments with criticism, and mildly sabotage her relationship with her granddaughters, and I say “mildly” because if we weren’t so dutiful, and so sure that there was goodness and good intention in there, too, we’d probably have written her off. Maybe it was her own strict, German parents, whom she never, ever talked about. Maybe it was living through the Depression and getting herself through college when most women didn’t even consider it. Or maybe it was the early death of her husband, who, from what I can tell, was the happy one, and probably the one my mom took after. Maybe my grandmother knew she wouldn’t find another man like him, or maybe her marriage had been a difficult one; I have no idea.
But I know this: her purses were awful. The big cream-colored one I remember from my childhood, not so much ivory colored as pale mustard, with black buckles; the black monstrosity that was her every-day purse, covered in something dark and shiny that was peeling off in places, revealing something like cardboard underneath. And her “nice purse,” the giant white one she carried in her old age, made of vinyl that she said looked like real leather, which she said was “the best kind,” a very unsettling comment. They were horrible, and not for lack of money, since one thing my grandmother did very well was invest. She read the Wall Street Journal Every Day and had done well for herself, but carried purses that would not sell at any thrift store, anywhere.
The handles of my grandmother’s purses were too short to wear over her shoulder, so she wore them over her left arm, resting in the crook of her elbow, rendering that arm T-rex-like and useless, with the hand sticking up idly, Monty-Burns style. (Though the one time she found me watching The Simpsons she grimaced and gave me a look that said it might as well have been pornography.) Her purses were spacious, and she took pride in showing you how they held her wallet, her checkbook, a small pack of tissues and her glasses with room to spare. Enough for a mid-size Buick.
So I was traumatized, unconsciously and early-on, by my grandmother’s purses. I loved her, in the dutiful way you love someone because you are supposed to, but I hated her purses. I was and am still not fashion-forward; I did not grow up and carry a Louis Vuitton purse in my twenties, and once in my thirties I even asked someone, “what is Prada, exactly?” (She gasped in horror.) I simply grew an aversion to purses. All purses. Even my mom’s, because although she favored good quality bags–every two years or so she let herself get a new Coach or Doony-Bourke purse, and they made her truly happy–they were still big, like everything else in the 80s, and they were still carried in the crook of the arm, and they still had a matronly quality that I have an aversion to, despite being in my forties, having four kids and a minivan.
So I tried, my entire life, to carry as little as possible in the smallest bag possible. In high school I carried a tiny wallet and a lip gloss in a bag the size of a sandwich bag, with the enviable GUESS triangle on it. In college I went all student-scholar, with only a backpack, except at night when I would cram some cash in my pockets (if I went out at all). The diaper-bag years of my late twenties and thirties offered a respite, because a diaper bag screams THIS IS TEMPORARY I HAVE A BABY, but still, even my diaper bag was a non-descript black sling-over-the-back job with no polka-dots or baby giraffes anywhere, and by the time every child was old enough to carry their own damn sippy-cup, I had discovered the mini cross-body phone wallet, which says to the self and to the world: See? I don’t even need a purse anymore!
But last week I saw this purse. I was not shopping for purses, but that day I believe my car keys and phone were sticking precariously out of the shallow pockets on the back of my pants, making my butt look the size of Mrs. Doubtfire’s, and my wallet was tucked under my arm so I wouldn’t have to carry it, giving me a lop-sided gait as I shopped. The purse was in a shoe store, where I was waiting for daughter-one to try on ten pairs of Sperrys that all looked the same, so I had time to wander and browse. And there it was, beckoning me to come forward and touch it’s buttery softness.
It was small, as “bags” go (bags, I have learned, being different from purses), but large enough to hold a wallet and an ipad, or a tattered copy of the short stories of Edna Ferber. The leather was real and soft, but not floppy and flimsy, and it smelled like libraries and tobacco and nostalgia; like Indiana Jones. There was a pocket on the front perfect for a phone, but not so perfect that it seemed to scream phone pocket, so you wouldn’t have to dig in the main compartment and fish out your phone in the grocery check-out line when you heard a text come in from a child at home wondering if he could use the creme-brulee torch to melt a plastic bottle into a Frisbee. (This really happened.)
The closure at the top of the bag was one of those discreet, magnetic button thingies that manages to close the whole bag while also providing instant-open technology, should you want to fish out a lip gloss as you pull into the parking lot at soccer practice and see that your son’s assistant coach is a guy you haven’t seen in twenty-five years, who sat in front of you in high school civics class and doodled pictures of famous athletes in his spiral. (This really happened. His favorite was John Elway.) There was even a little lip stick pocket at the top, near the magnetic button thingy, so the lip stick would nearly leap into your hand in such I-forgot-makeup-today emergencies. And the magnetic button thingy then closes with a quiet little thud that says, “I got this.”
I don’t know enough about fashion to say if the purse was tailored or preppy (is that the same thing now?) or vintage-like or contemporary, but it spoke to me. Possibly, it had an urban-cowboy vibe, appealing to the dichotomy of my Colorado roots and current city of dwelling. It was simple and streamlined and sleek, with no tassels or buckles or nonsense, and the strap was long enough to carry over the shoulder with the bag resting in the little niche where your waist goes in, instead of banging against the hip. No T-rex arms or Monty Burns hands. And the best part: the bottom of the bag was a slender, banana-shaped wedge, making the bag stand up alone when you set it down. Holy crap.
I did not buy the bag. I had an impressionable teenage girl with me, who has a propensity to let money burn a hole in her pocket, and the bag was not cheap. It was not really even reasonable, though purse-people would probably disagree. I cradled it lovingly, and put it back, and I have thought about it for weeks. But today is my 45th birthday, and because I do not have to pick up a child anywhere after school or make dinner, I am going to go see if it is still there, and I am going to buy it. When I get it home, I’m going to lovingly load it up with my wallet and a lip-stick and a collection of short stories by some bad-ass female writer like Edna Ferber. I will be gentle with the purse, but not too gentle, because this purse can take it. If Amelia Earhart was a suburban mom, she’d have this purse. Or Meg Ryan, when she was a super-cute bookstore owner in You’ve Got Mail. Or if Indiana Jones had a daughter who had four kids, she’d have this purse.
It is time for me to let go of some stuff, like my grudge against purses, and my grandmother. It is time for me to embrace who I am, which is someone who needs a purse smaller than a suitcase for an international flight, but larger than a snack-sized sandwich bag. I love that this purse looks good, but more than that I love that it feels right and smells good and holds exactly what I want and can stand alone when I need it to, which, it occurs to me, are some things I love about my husband. But about this purse: I think it could change my life. I think it could be one thing that is exactly what I want, when life is unpredictable and sometimes harder than you thought, and I think it could remind me that I am exactly me, not more and not less, but very capable. I just hope it is still there. Wish me luck.