Friday, July 13, 2012

The Purse Inheritance

by Sheila Connolly

She pulled the battered box toward her and untied the faded ribbons.  Lifting the lid, she inhaled deeply of the scent that meant childhood to her—her grandmother's floral sachet, mixed with her mother's cigarette smoke.  Inside the box lay neatly wrapped bundles, each swathed in white tissue paper, tied with colored ribbon, a brief note tucked under the bow, in her grandmother's or her mother's handwriting…written on a "DON'T FORGET" pad.  How could she forget? 

No, I haven't gone over to writing women's fiction; this is a true story. 

Recently my sister moved into a new home, and in the process she was purging her place of unnecessary items.  Her concept of "necessary" and mine aren't quite in synch, but unarguably I have more storage space than she does.  As a result, I am now the designated custodian of the hereditary purse collection. 

We're not talking ancient or valuable here, except for the family associations.  What I have is about two dozen evening purses that belonged to my grandmother and my mother, and which date from roughly the late 1940s to the 1960s (including a tasteful black clutch I carried to my first formal dance in 1967).  And many are beautiful. 

My grandmother, in the
purse years
As I've no doubt mentioned before, my grandmother left her husband, after he'd decided he wanted to be a dairy farmer in Maine and failed, and she moved to New York City, where she found work during WWII.  When I say she found work, there's a story there too:  she was barely scraping by when she attended a funeral in New Jersey for an old family friend, where she met someone who was instrumental in getting her a job at Lipton Tea (and a ride back to the city, saving her the train fare), where she rose to the position of Assistant Director of Human Resources before retiring in 1958.  I'm guessing that the Golden Age of the Purses lies between 1945 and 1958, and I know the purses (along with my grandmother, of course) attended some fabulous events, including a dinner with the Queen of England. 

So the purse collection speaks of another time and place, the glamorous New York when there were still night clubs and big name bands, where you could sing along to golden-age Broadway musicals, and dine at the 21 Club or Le Pavillon or the Waldorf.  And you had to have the right purse for every occasion. 

Most of the beaded purses are French, a few Belgian, and the beadwork is elegant and intricate.  Most came from a small boutique called Henri Bétrix, on Madison Avenue.  I was probably there at some point—shopping was one of our traditional school-holiday pastimes when my sister and I visited my grandmother, and we were familiar with most of the high-end boutiques on Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue, not to mention Tiffany's (we used to go in and try on diamonds for fun, when I was a child). 

There are those (like my sister) who would argue that I shouldn't be keeping such useless stuff.  But as long as I have space I'm going to hang on to things like these purses, not only because they belonged to people I loved, but also because they capture a moment in time, from a lifestyle now gone.  And I still visit the purses now and then and remember the women who bought them and carried them, which now include me and my daughter (who in fact carried the paisley purse on a recent trip to New York City). 


6 comments:

Susan said...

What a delightful story about objects that symbolize so much. I too inherited a great many things because I evidently have extra room in a closet. So I am the custodian of objects from our parents and younger brother. One of my most cherished is my father's WWII love letters to my mother, letters that contained a code to let her know his location. The censors never spotted it!

lil Gluckstern said...

I have purse from my mom when she was young. They are exquisite in different ways from yours. She was an embroidery lady. These bags could hold very little but they are so pretty like yours, and not as hard looking as what is popular today. Thank you for this post. It is very lovely.

JJM said...

A very lovely post, indeed, and a joy to read. I always call such things as your purses "tangible memories", and I cherish my own dearly. --Mario

Sandra Parshall said...

Beautiful purses! I'm glad you've kept them, and that some are still being used.

Connie Archer said...

They are keepers, absolutely. What could be more beautiful than heirloom purses, crafted with materials impossible to find today?
Connie di Marco
Writing as Connnie Archer
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Spoonful of Murder
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Verslues said...

I have purse from my mom when she was young. They are exquisite in different ways from yours. She was an embroidery lady. These bags could hold very little but they are so pretty like yours, and not as hard looking as what is popular today. Thank you for this post. It is very lovely.