By Pam Pacelli Cooper
President, Verissima Productions
She always called it her “old lady bag.” When my mother in law’s purse wore out, after 10 or 15 years of hard use, she asked for another one. It was not easy to find. Black, sturdy, short handles to be gripped with the hand rather than slung over the shoulder.
When my mother in law wore out at 92 years of age, the bag stayed behind. We went through her clothes and her photographs, her safe deposit box, and her furniture. The house was sold, the plants given away, but, the bag was still there, its two gold closures clasped tightly, untouched since the day she went to the beauty parlor, returned home, sat down, and died.
We thought about throwing it away whole—there couldn’t be anything of importance in it—and certainly none of us wanted the purse itself. But we decided to open it. And we gasped, much as Aladdin did when the inconspicuous stone slid aside to reveal the treasures of the cave.
The first thing released was her scent. The tight closures of the purse had kept her rose scented cream protected from the air, and we took in the essence of her, preserved on a handkerchief (how many of us still use those?). So many memories and impressions returned that we sat for some time bringing her to life again.
Then we found the sturdy baggie, filled with Charms, Mentos, and Starlight Mints, the Candy she always carried with her to give to grandchildren, a neighbor or stranger who had a cough and needed relief. We reminisced about how our children had been the beneficiaries of the candy bag’s contents, and how comforted we had been to know she was always prepared.
The package of Kleenex, replenished at regular intervals—something I don’t carry, though my husband wishes I would; a tiny sewing kit to tighten the button in danger of falling off; a compact, gold, with a mirror for touch ups, the middle of the circle wiped clean, with the powder remaining only on the edges.
Lists. A tiny address book containing the contact information for only the most important and most loved people in her life. The last receipt from the grocery store, which revealed her shopping habits: red grapefruit, avocados, crackers, Pepperidge farm cookies, and cans of tomato soup.
By the time we had finished the inventory, there was a microcosm of her life spread in front of us. What had I learned? Those quotidian objects, gathered together by habit, can give us some of the deepest insights and the most vibrant pictures of a life story.
Have you had this experience? What stories do you have to share?
If you haven’t, have you thought about what purses, wallets, budget books, or other mundane objects you might be able to examine for signs of life?