By Suzanne Cushman
When Aunt Anne died at a hundred and one, I inherited her purse. It was the one she carried every day, not a gorgeous designer bag, although she had plenty of those, too. This purse was the size of a small suitcase. The once-dark leather was faded and stained. Anne carried it all the time, even from room to room in her own home. Old family photos show the same bag leaning against young Anne as she sits on the couch watching television in her living room.
Anne was my favorite aunt. Every Christmas, she would come up with a new handmade gift based on one of the places she had traveled that year, like a kangaroo with black button eyes from Australia, or a doll dress with lace from Belgium. We would all get them, all five cousins. I still have my collection of Anne Originals, each with a label sewn on an inside seam that reads “Especially Handmade for You by Aunt Anne.”
Traveling was the big love in Anne’s life. While many people kept journals to remember their vacations, Anne kept a purse from each country she visited. On the far left of her closet shelf, was a soft gray Italian lamb’s leather. Thirty-eight bags to the far right was a woven, round satchel with gold tassels from Vietnam. But the one she couldn’t live without was the well-worn one I got.
Ask anyone, and they will be able to come up with a short list of curious things women have pulled out of their purses. My friend Beth carries an old boyfriend’s sock in hers. My neighbor Virginia keeps a reliquary of St. Agnes of Bohemia. Chris won’t leave her house without her liter-sized bag of individual coffee creamers from McDonald’s. My anthropology teacher loved to show people the shrunken head she kept in her purse’s side pocket.
In her will, Anne specified that nothing was to be removed from her everyday purse before her lawyer presented it to me in a used pineapple box. I think I know why. Women’s purses are precious property with two very basic rules: No touching without invitation (even if you are married to the owner), and no questions about anything you see come out.
In all the years I knew Anne, I only saw the rules broken twice. Once by my cousin, Anne’s five-year-old son, who emptied the entire contents in the toilet and flushed, and once by my uncle, her husband. When Anne caught him rummaging around in it, he said he was looking for anti-fungal cream. She eventually divorced him.
After the lawyer gave me Anne’s purse, I drove home feeling like Auntie Anne and I were returning from a road trip together. I carried the box into the house and put it on the bed in the guest room. It was months before I finally poured myself a glass of pinot noir and pulled up a chair next to the bed so I could spread out the contents.
Everything went in categories. The Common, like her wallet, hand sanitizer, and lipstick. The Frequents, including a Swiss Army knife, tissues, and hand lotion. The Unusuals, like the iron playing piece from Monopoly. And finally, The Mystery: The picture of a handsome guy smiling up at me from the torn page of a 1932 yearbook.
In an inside pocket, I found a cardboard box the size of a man’s shoe, although it didn’t weigh anything. I used the scissors on the Swiss Army knife to cut the green gardener’s string holding the box shut, and took off the lid.
Inside was a handmade cloth doll, six or seven inches tall, wearing a fisherman’s knit sweater and a tweed skirt. She was carrying a satchel covered with tiny patches. Each patch was embroidered with the name of a country Anne had visited. She had made this doll for herself. I pulled back the neck of the sweater, and there it was: A tiny tag that read “Especially Handmade for You by Anne.”
I sat holding the doll a while, thinking of Anne not as my aunt, but as a close friend sharing her secrets with me and inviting me to share mine with her. I hadn’t seen her this way before, and although it was odd, I didn’t want to lose the feeling. After several minutes, my mind still adjusting to the discovery I’d just made, I began putting everything back in her purse.
As an afterthought, I unhooked the latch at the top of the doll’s satchel. Two little blue cards were tucked inside, each in its own plastic sleeve. They were miniature passports, each no bigger than a postage stamp. One had Anne’s name on it, and the other one had a name on it that looked familiar, but I couldn’t immediately place it. Then it clicked; it was the guy in the yearbook picture. I opened the tiny passport Anne had made and turned pages filled with the names of countries starting with Florence, Italy and ending with Saigon, Vietnam—a long list matching the story of the thirty-eight purses in Anne’s closet.