I wrote this after our beloved mother died on September 26, 25 years ago. I offer it now, to honor her memory.
A woman’s purse is a thing of mystery to a man. This I’ve always known. What I didn’t know was how sacred the privacy of a purse was – until Dad asked me to go through Mom’s purse, shortly before she died. By then, I’d been with Mom at her hospital bed, and later, her nursing home bed. I’d helped my intensely private mother to bathe, to the toilet, onto a bedpan. I’d thought all the barriers were down – until I opened my Mother’s purse.
A purse is a homemaker’s office-on-her arm, and Mom’s was well-organized. It had three sections plus a zipper pocket; a place for everything and everything in its place. Mom kept her purse much the way she kept her home: in order, but not stiflingly so. So, even while I was aware of invading Mom’s privacy, I also felt right at home in my Mother’s purse.
There was a small envelope labeled “Iron Money.” Mom had received an iron as a gift, discovered it was defective and returned it. Committed to buying a new iron, Mom’s unique financial code dictated that the replacement be bought not with just any cash, but with the very same bills she’d received as a refund.
Makes perfect sense to me.
There was another envelope, unlabeled, containing a crisp $20 bill. That was Mom’s emergency stash. “Never go out without money,” was one of Mom’s dictums. “Never go outside with wet hair,” was another. I’m afraid I often failed to comply with the latter, but I never go out without money. I inherited Mom’s overactive imagination, and that stash is the shield against cars that go clunk in the night.
Or possibly – funds for a bargain at a garage sale. How Mom loved sales!
Sales – and shopping. Some of Mom’s best times were spent walking the mall. Armed with a battery of credit cards – and she had them all – the walking was her exercise, the looking her recreation and the buying, which happened only occasionally, was almost incidental. Mom never abused those credit cards. She was a child of the Great Depression and being frugal was ingrained in her, a trait I have not inherited, but one I try to emulate (with questionable success).
I was puzzled by the two books of matches until Dad explained that Mom carried them for him. That was typical of Mom. For years she’d been after Dad – albeit gently – to quit smoking. Her love was balanced enough to urge him to give up the habit, but to provide him with matches if he needed them. Some might suggest that if Mom truly loved Dad she wouldn’t have offered the means for him to light up, but I disagree. Mom’s love was accepting, not controlling. An outlook I’ve had many reasons to be grateful for.
A neat, blue cosmetic bag contained hand lotion, nail cream, half a dozen lipsticks, and blusher (which Mom called “rouge”). I was glad that, at 73, Mom still cared enough about her appearance to wear makeup, though I often wondered, over the years, how it felt to apply blusher to her left cheek. Mom had a scar that reached from eye to chin, from mouth to temple, the result of a childhood accident. She rarely referred to it, though she did tell me once that kids in school called her “Scarface.” What a burden to live with – though she never showed any bitterness about it. Or about anything, that I can recall. Even at the end, knowing the brain cancer was killing her, Mom could still smile and say, “I’ve had a good life.”
Car keys, house keys, and two keys on a ring we have yet to discover a use for. Maybe Mom was carrying them around in hopes of encountering the doors they opened? An address book with that oh-so-familiar and beloved handwriting. And a small plastic card that listed 15% and 20% tips.
How Mom enjoyed going out to eat – though it was a luxury my folks had been able to afford only in recent years. Mom often teased Dad, “You got to retire – don’t I?” and for the slightest reason, or for no reason at all except that she didn’t feel like cooking (which is the best reason I can think of), Mom was ready to Go Out. At our lunches together, in those last months, she often insisted it was “her treat” and was scrupulous about leaving the appropriate tip. She’d carefully study the bill, refer to her tip table, count out the exact amount of money and then look at me, a little self-consciously. “Did I do it right?” she’d ask. You did it right, Mom. As always.
There were various cards for pleasure – the library, video rentals – and other cards with a more serious intent: insurance, Social Security, voter registration. And a serious card that gave Mom great pleasure: her ATM card. Mom thought automatic teller machines were a wonderful invention. “You just put in the card and out comes money!” she’d marvel. Of course, she was kidding. Kidding my Dad was one of her favorite pastimes. That, and loving him. And the five children that love had created.
I suppose Mom had one cough drop in her purse for the same reason she had one piece of candy: You never know when you might have a cough – or a craving. Expected items: driver’s license, pictures of grandchildren, pens, sunglasses. Then one item that surprised me, but probably shouldn’t have – The Frequent Communicants Prayer Book. I’m sure Mom used it, though I never saw her do so; she was low-key about her faith. Steadfast – from the day she converted to Catholicism just prior to marrying Dad – but low-key. I know she regretted the Church and I parting company all those years ago. I suspect she snuck a few prayers in, now and then, for my return to The Fold. But she respected my right to make my own decisions and never tried to impose her beliefs on me. Tolerant. My Mom was so tolerant. How else could she have lived with the six of us?
In the back of the prayer book were memorial cards from three funerals: her Father’s in 1982, her younger sister’s in 1985, and her Mother’s in 1987. Mom’s Mother lived until the age of 93, an age Mom and the rest of us blithely assumed she would also attain. I’m angry that I was robbed of those extra 20 years with Mom. At the end, Mom expressed surprise, but no anger. “What good would that do?” she’d ask me. You were right, Mom. As always.
So, this was my Mother’s purse. No great mysteries here; no great revelations, either. In fact, it was a very ordinary purse. That belonged to a very extraordinary woman.
Our Mother: Kathryn Roberta Phelps Walsh.