Monday, February 25, 2008

If I can't take it with me, I'm not going

If you thought a woman’s purse was just a handy way to carry around a few essentials, you’d be dead wrong. A man wouldn’t dream of carrying a purse; he knows all about its totemic significance. He’d rather have a big wallet, even one on a daggy-looking chain. A big leather tool-belt, yes–but a purse? Forget it.

There’s a mystique about purses that’s way beyond the convenience factor. Think back to your childhood; your mother’s purse was strictly off-limits. For all you knew she kept piranhas in it, and a surreptitious dip into it would transform your hand into a bloody stump. My own children knew about this taboo as well; they carried my purse to me and stood at a respectful distance while I rummaged in it for the last-minute cash they needed.

Leafing through the style section in the weekend papers you’ll see gaudy little purses retailing for the price of a semester’s tuition at college, or a Caribbean cruise. These are not just handy little totes, no; they’re where women keep their brains, the nerve centre of their lives. Women in movies stand outside their blazing homes screaming, “Save my baby!” The purse is already safe–it was the first thing they snatched up when they fled. The baby’s an afterthought.

We hate to be separated from our purses, and the older we get, the tighter the bond and the heavier the load. I’ve seen very sick, elderly patients, at death’s door, coming in for emergency surgery, and the purse is right there on the stretcher, at their elbow. Maybe there’s a pass somewhere in there that says,”Pearly Gates. Admit One.”

When I was young I carried a strappy little number that held a comb, lipstick and Tube fare. Now I can lose five ugly pounds any time, just by dropping my purse. I shudder to think what’s in it. Even I’m surprised when I check–it’s like archeology. And we favour the ones with lots of zippered compartments, just right for church. In the hush you’ll hear zip, zip, zip, interspersed with several minutes of burrowing, and finally the extraction, from the depths, of a cough candy with a wrapper that crackles like a five-alarm fire.

And the rubber bands. A few years back, I began slipping rubber bands round my address book and wallet to keep them together, only to look up and catch my eldest giving me a warning glare. Rubber bands, apparently, are the beginning of the slippery slope. Who knew? Maybe that’s the “fixed income” everyone’s on about–rubber bands round the wallet so the money doesn’t escape.

Meanwhile, somewhere, there’s probably an academic in a dusty library toiling away on a PhD thesis about purses. I’m waiting for the definitive article on how to travel light and leave half this stuff at home. When I come across it I’ll save it and slip it into my purse, inside the crossword-puzzle book, to read later.

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