My purse is so much part of me I’m surprised I don’t yell “Ouch” when someone bumps it. I’m surprised it doesn’t bleed.
My mother’s purse could not be opened without permission. Even granted that permission, asked perhaps to retrieve her glasses, I averted my eyes and searched for her glasses with my hand blind as a mole through lipsticks and compacts and keys and cash. You just didn’t look in your mother’s purse. Nobody did. Not even your father did.
Your father had pockets. Your mother had a purse. You have to ask yourself, “Why is it women weight themselves down with purses and men don’t? Why can a man get through the day with his wallet and comb while a woman hefts a bag weighing two, three, even four pounds?” Not that I want to make too much of this, but I don’t want to make too little.
All of us have these photographs. In mine I am four. It must be summer, I’m wearing a sunsuit. My feet occupy mere inches of my mother’s open-toe pumps. Her castoff Lilly Dache (I know the hat’s designer because years later I ask) sits askew on my head. Shirred gloves reach to my bare shoulders. Over my arm hangs what appears, next to my four-year-old body, to be an enormous alligator bag. I appear happily weighted down by these appurtenances of womanhood. Ear to ear my smile is all white milk teeth.
What I loved most about my mother’s hand-me-down purses were the purses’ insides. I would reach down with my small hand into the purse’s darkness and stroke the satiny lining. I would poke in my nose and inhale the face powder smell. I loved the zippered inner pockets. I hoped always, unzipping one of these, that my fingers would ferret out a coin or earring or stick of yellow-wrapped Juicy Fruit gum. I loved filling up these purses, if only to go with them into the next room, toting my doll clothes or a terrified, mewling kitten.
When I closed my mother’s old purses, I loved the clasp’s satisfying snap. I loved knowing everything I’d put in would be leading its own mute life in the silky darkness and would be there, waiting, when I reached in for it. Boys must love that about pockets.
In the first grade class of my Manhattan school, boys and girls carried buckled leather school bags in which we kept books and papers. We girls also carried purses. As easily as boys did, we could have tucked money and keys and Kleenex into our school bag. We didn’t.
Purses made boys nervous. They did not touch your purse, in part because they had learned not to touch their mothers’ purses. As we got older, graduated from grammar school to junior high, our purses became larger and boys became even more anxious about them. They made the ritual uneasy jokes about how much women crammed into purses. They tensed when a girl, hunting for pencil or keys, scrambled through her purse’s holdings. “I can’t stand it when you do that,” a boy growled at me.
At this same time, our menstrual periods commenced — or, more colloquially, we were “getting out periods.” We were then truly fearful at having anyone, especially a boy, see into our purses. For underneath the rubble of notes passed among girlfriends and the rarer note from a boy (all of this perfervid writing was about love), we had hidden sanitary napkins.
Nothing after this, of course, would ever be the same. Even those tomboys among us, who’d gotten by with wallets, would now carry purses. The purse would become a veritable organ of womanhood. Even as a seventh-grader I could not imagine leaving the house without my purse. It did not matter that most days I used little more from its contents (which grew in number as I grew older) than keys and cash and lipstick. Without my purse, I felt uncomfortable (and still do). Amputees speak of “phantom limb pain,” in which someone whose leg, for instance, has been amputated feels pain that seems to originate in his now absent leg. Researchers who study pain theorize that an amputee experiences this phantom limb pain because of a lifetime accrual of mental images of his leg. Likewise, when I’m without my purse, I feel the absence of my purse. When a woman has fallen deeply in love and believes herself loved in return, you will sometimes see her, out at night with her beloved, not carrying her usual capacious purse. She will have given him her lipstick and an infinitesimal coin purse into which she’s tucked her driver’s license and house key. She has him. She doesn’t need much. White-haired Pearl sits, ankles crossed, at a cafe table in a museum garden. When I tell her, “I am interested in your purse,” she regards me so quizzically her hyperthyroid’s bulging blue eyes look as if they’re going to pop out.
“Okay,” Pearl sighs, “now you’re coming to me with one of those surveys about what ladies carry in their bags? You are going to ask me to take everything out to show you while you laugh and make jokes?” No, no, no, I tell her. No survey. I had been curious lately about purses. Did she know the word “purse” comes from Latin bursa, meaning oxhide? That derivations include “pursers” and “bursars” and the Paris Stock Exchange, “le Bourse”?
Pearl fixes me with a pitying gawk. Well, her purse came from Macy’s, the New York Herald Square original Macy’s, and was given her for Christmas by her elder daughter, the one, she adds, in case I’ve forgotten, “who moved from Rego Park to Cincinnati. The one married to the male nurse. It’s real leather, as you can see.” She thumps the purse so hard that it exhales a sweet-smelling cloud of the face powder she keeps in a round box down inside it (and whose perfume scents the purse’s satin lining).
So we are talking about her purse, a crumple now of black leather showing lumps of what’s in it, and beaten in a bit by her and invitingly half open between us on the round table. Our gaze stays on it. We each keep reaching across the tabletop and touching its cool tough hide.
Pearl’s hair mists above her pink scalp, as pink as the pink hibiscus flowering near us. Pearl’s mouth opens wide. Her tongue glistens and her teeth, her own, ground down by some 70 years’ chewing, form a tidy row. Pearl’s stories push out of her, squealing as newborns squeal. A groaning sow Pearl is, laying down in straw, giving easy birth to “I don’t know if I ever told you but my friend Mrs. Bigaggio, she went on her way down the street in broad daylight…” It is all coming back to her now, she says, raising her white eyebrows, but she doesn’t think that I would be interested to know all this.
I am, I say. I am. “Well, then, it was the very day that the Challenger exploded. You remember that? Mrs. Bigaggio was on her way to the supermarket. The purse snatcher hit Mrs. Bigaggio on the head. On top, here.” Pearl thumps her own head. “With a hammer. Mrs. Bigaggio went into a coma. Imagine laying there tubes running in and out of you and you no more than a slab of meat and the nurses laughing at your body parts while they’re washing you off. That’s what a coma is.” Pearl studies me, frowns. “I am getting off the subject, huh?”
My subject is what Pearl implies. My boring subject I am insisting we discuss. I say, “No, you’re not,” and watch Pearl sip at her coffee.
“Well,” she says, “Mrs. Bigaggio came out of her coma. She is okay now.”
What I have to remember about purses, Pearl says, her eyebrows rearing up, is that the purse is also something that makes you desirable to the person who would grab it. The purse makes her — “and you, too,” she stares hard at me — desirable to the world. “What do you think of that?” I think that is terrible, of course.
As the morning wears on, Pearl begins to pull items from her purse to show me. She hands me a scrap of pale blue brocade that she wishes to match, for color, for new slipcovers. We look at snapshots of her daughter, her grandchildren, and great-grandson. “I have also, here,” Pearl smiles, “the curl from my great-grandson.” She holds up an auburn curl. We examine a photo of Pearl and George, a gentleman with whom Pearl keeps company, in square dance costumes. “I will never,” she says, “let him move in with me.”
Medicare cards, Social Security card, health insurance ID, bus passes, pill bottles, handkerchief, rent receipts, several business cards, a tumult of receipts, wallet, sunglasses, eyeglasses, a rhinestone necklace, cologne, folded dollar bills, grocery list, keys, more fabric swatches, letters, lipstick, blusher, powder, aspirin, address book, checkbook, eye shadow and mascara, ballpoint pens, Dentyne, clove Life Savers, threaded needle woven in and out a black felt square, silver compact, brush, comb, rubber bands, bus schedules, square-dancing club schedule, tooth brush, tiny toothpaste tube, extra pair of pantyhose, a string of safety pins, a religious tract someone gave her when she was waiting for a bus, clear nail polish (“in case,” Pearl explains, “my stockings run, I can paint them with it and stop the run”), a recipe for vegetarian chili. “Nothing,” says Pearl, snapping her purse shut, “that you wouldn’t expect, is it? No surprises, huh?”
I agree. No surprises. I say that my purse feels like it’s part of me, almost part of my body. Some odd body part. Does she feel this way? Pearl laughs, cackles. “My dried-up old womb.” She pats her purse, thumps it. “It has come down to this.”