I recently flew to Miami to help my mother sort through her possessions before she moved house. She wanted to declutter – mostly by giving her clutter to me. She tried to convince me to take her disused, heart-shaped salad bowls back to Paris. Then she pulled a beaded evening bag out of a drawer.
“Mimi’s black bag!” she exclaimed. “Mimi” was what we called her mother, Esther, who died in 2007. The purse was a staple for fancy occasions. It seemed more of an heirloom than the bowls, so I took it.
Back home in Paris, where I’ve lived for 15 years, I stash the purse in my office. Like most heirlooms, it is treasured but useless. But during long days at work, I ponder the purse. I’ve moved away from America, and my own roots. The purse seems dense with history, a link to a far-off world. What secrets might it contain?
When I open it at last – I’d been afraid of damaging it – there’s a clue: a label for “Morabito Paris”. I’d inadvertently returned the purse to its hometown.
My mother thinks my grandmother acquired the purse in the 1950s, on a free trip that my grandfather, a food trader, got for selling enough canned goods that year. Jean-Baptiste Morabito – a Neapolitan jeweller and maker of bejewelled bags – had a shop on the Place Vendôme in Paris, where he “received Tout-Paris, the international jet set, royal families”, according to the firm’s website.
I imagine my grandfather – raised working class in Virginia during the Depression – flinching at the cost of the “black caviar” model his wife chose. Back home in Miami, where Mimi was a middle-class housewife raising three children, she’d use the handbag for weddings and bar mitzvahs. My aunt says Mimi didn’t even carry money in her bag, just lipstick, a powder compact and a cloth handkerchief.
Mimi had a university degree, but she never worked outside the house – she was born a generation too early. Did the black purse come to seem like a consolation prize for the life she missed? I look through old photographs, searching for evidence of Betty Friedan-like angst. In every shot, she looks beamingly content.
But the era of tiny, fragile bags would soon end. My mother studied retail and opened a clothing store. She kept a giant leather handbag behind the counter, with an overflowing Filofax and collection of credit cards. It was the era of psychotherapy, no-fault divorce and the birth-control pill. Women needed bigger, sturdier handbags to carry their more complicated lives.
I now carry even more, often including a laptop and a thermos of coffee. The only overlap with my grandmother is lipstick. But on a night out with my husband, for dinner and a film, I decide to use Mimi’s purse. I dangle the purse from my wrist as I board the Métro. Too small for a mobile phone, it’s heavy from the thousands of black beads stitched into swirling patterns. But it soon feels so conspicuously fancy that I slip it into the tote bag that I’ve brought for my overflow items.
The next time my daughter stops by my office, I show her the purse. “This was Mimi’s beaded handbag!”I exclaim. When she gets a bit older, I hope she’ll take it.•