My Mother’s Purse
May 22, 2012
My mother passed away in 2006 at the age of 69. She had Alzheimers, so she was gone long before she was gone. You folks who have lost someone to dementia know what I mean, and the rest can probably imagine and empathize. It’s a terrible, slow loss of the person you love, until all that’s left is a confused and empty shell. Anyway, after she died, my father gave me several things of hers that were just too difficult for him to deal with; one of those things was my mother’s purse. He couldn’t even open it, much less empty it, go through it, or get rid of it. He asked me to take it away, and so I did.
My mother’s last purse was a red canvas Land’s End bag with her initials embroidered on the flap. It was bulging and heavy from the pressure of its overpacked contents. I couldn’t imagine what was in it. When I got home, I set it on the bed and just looked at it for a few minutes, not sure if I was up to going through its contents either. I did, though, because ultimately the curiosity was just too much. Why was it so astonishingly heavy? What the heck had she thought important enough to carry with her everywhere when her mind was a broken and faded remnant of itself?
I sat on the bed and slowly began to take things out, one by one. A rubber-banded bundle of crochet hooks. A Samsonite luggage key from a long-gone set of luggage. A hairbrush. A purple velvet Crown Royal bag with random objects in it (a belt buckle, a makeup brush, some rubber bands, a single cufflink, a coin from South America). A Cross pen with her name engraved on it in flowing script. Another belt buckle, this one a large Western-style brass oval with a horse on it. An Avon Christmas ornament still in its box from 1981. A baggie full of buttons. A photo of my son as a baby. Dice. A carabiner. An Altoids tin filled with mismatched cheap earrings and pins. About ten different lipsticks. An unopened bottle of Carnet de Bal Parfum. Another hairbrush. Measuring tape. Another bottle of perfume. A small black address book, completely blank. Two large cloisonné pendants. A snapshot of my father. A Wonder Woman hand mirror that had been mine when I was a child. A hand-written recipe card for peanut butter cookies. Half a dozen plastic disposable razors, two packs of dental floss, a tube of Lotrimin, a small decorative porcelain plate, and various other pursey detritus.
If you’re like me, some of those things made you smile because they’re just so nonsensical. She was like one of those birds that collects shiny objects for its nest, with no sense of the use of the items in question. But I felt compelled to try to figure out what, if anything, some of these objects represented in her poor fragmented mind. Pictures of her loved ones are easy enough, but why did she, in her dementia, believe it necessary to cart around a baggie full of mismatched cheap plastic buttons? Why the huge brass Western belt buckle? Why so many razors, brushes, and lipsticks? What do the objects important to someone almost completely lost in the fog of Alzheimers mean, if anything? I struggled for some time, coming up with a few reasonable answers. The recipe card represented her love of cooking and some vague sense that that was important to her at one time. The personal care items indicated her desire to continue being able to take care of herself for as long as possible – grooming ourselves is one of our first acts of independence, after all. The various pieces of costume jewelry, the Christmas ornament, the luggage key, and other shiny bits were probably just a basic attraction to pretty and sparkly things. Other objects in the purse, like the proliferation of hardened yellow rubber bands, the dice, or the blank address book, will never make sense to me I guess.
But my mother’s purse reinforced a simple life lesson for me. We carry things around with us, whether they be physical objects, emotions, relationships, scars, or other things we acquire throughout our lives. Good stuff, bad stuff, everything. The things add up and get heavy on our shoulders, but we stubbornly refuse to put them down. Maybe we should put them down, and maybe we shouldn’t. But we should certainly examine and evaluate the things we carry around with us, frequently and with honesty, so that we can live with greater purpose and meaning. My mother couldn’t help the confusion that caused her to lug that heavy bag around with her for her last couple of years, but I can do something about the things I carry around with me every day. I can examine the things I feel are important, prioritize them, and lighten my load. How about you?