Thanksgiving 2012 marked the first time in several years all six siblings in my family, along with their own families, were together in one spot.
It was a beautiful blue day on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and cousins big and small raced along the tangled shoreline in a backyard game of football, while the shiny, yellow sun skimmed diamonds across the water and skipped after them in its own sparkling version of Hopscotch. Iridescent ribbons of children’s laughter drifted in the open windows and rippled throughout the little red rancher my grandfather built 40 years ago on a small, hidden lot tucked up tight against the Chesapeake Bay.
We knew this would be the last time we celebrated this holiday with our family intact. My mother had just been diagnosed with advanced cancer and we were leaning on each other to make sure this day was wonderful enough to befit such a cruel distinction.
We had cancelled our dinner reservations at a beach hotel when my mother grew too tired for the excursion. As a group we moved into overdrive to create a holiday meal for 20 in only a few hours. I think we all appreciated the distraction such a challenge presented, and a whirlwind of shopping, chopping, coordinating and cooking quickly ensued. Bowls, bags, plates and platters crowded the countertops and tabletops, overflowing the tiny center kitchen and spilling into the dining room before being carried away on paper plates by eager hands into the brown-paneled family room. We had a lot of everything on the menu that day, but only two items were truly necessary: My mother’s bread stuffing and her favorite country ham. I smile when I remember how her grandchildren made sure she had plenty of both piled high on her plate. And I smile when I remember how much my mother smiled that day.
After dinner, my mother asked us to clear out her storage unit and take anything we might like to keep. The rest of it would be discarded. None of us had enthusiasm for the task of sorting through the stacks of crushed cardboard boxes and towers of barely contained chaos. But as we unwrapped each memory and unearthed the long forgotten treasures from our youth, we found ourselves releasing staccato bursts of excitement. Each school photograph, handmade Christmas ornament, dented basketball trophy and beloved, broken Fisher Price toy helped fill the jagged hole recently ripped into our lives.
It wasn’t long before I became overwhelmed and overloaded. The stagnant air in the tiny compartment grew thick, and the already fraying strings heroically holding up my shoulders finally broke, releasing them to fall with a shudder. I clutched a few brittle and yellowed mementos I knew would fit in my carry-on luggage and gingerly stepped over the rusted threshold of corrugated metal onto the hard, dry dirt of abandoned farmland.
It hurt to see all those bits and pieces of our childhood, our family history, unceremoniously condensed to fit inside a cold cement closet locked behind a colorless garage door. But at least it was all in one place. It didn’t escape me that as the six of us were reminiscing about Christmas mornings, birthdays, and summer vacations, we were actively dismantling our shared past once and for all.
I shoved the acidic thought down into my roiling stomach and angled my foot to nudge the protruding corner of a broken box the color of mud. It didn’t budge and I resisted the urge to kick it. My mother had packed this box with her careful hands and practiced patience. I would unpack it the same way.
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, had grabbed my arm and yanked me into a wormhole, spinning me backwards in time to a place where parents lived forever.
That plain, brown box humbly housed all of 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 every one of them in clearest detail along with 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 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 shenanigans 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 my mother’s purses in the Boston Museum of Science Who Collects exhibit. My mother got a kick out of seeing her old "pocketbooks" in a museum. She smiled when I told her 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."
The purses remain on display today, fourteen months later.
I occasionally receive messages and pictures from readers who happened across the exhibit on their visits to the museum. It makes me happy to know they had my mother in their thoughts that day. The display is the perfect memorial to my mother’s sense of style and her love of all things beautiful.
By the way, the “barf bags” are long gone and a quaint collection of cows currently grazes above my mother’s pocketbooks. I know she would approve.