Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Our big handbags carry complicated lives

Our big handbags carry complicated lives

Pamela Druckerman peeks inside her grandmother’s purse

Pamela Druckerman peeks inside her grandmother’s purse

Pamela Druckerman | June/July 2019

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.