My father was overseas a lot in the 60s and 70s and spent a lot of R&R time in Hong Kong. Daddy’s time in Hong Kong always resulted in packages arriving at the house. In one, there was an evening purse for my mother. My small self was left breathless by the beauty of pearls, crystals, and sequins sewn onto thick satin made of silk. It was years before I understood that one doesn’t carry an evening purse to the grocery store, but that breathless small self that used be me was bumfuzzled that Mama didn’t carry that purse everywhere.
The purse came out for special occasions – chiefly the Marine Corps Birthday Ball (which coincidentally occurs about this time every year). Like all truly inspired accessories, it’s a classic. In all the years of its use, it was never out of style.
When I got older, I was occasionally allowed to borrow it. I carried it to my prom. I carried it to some black tie events. I didn’t use it for my wedding, and for the life of me I can’t remember why. It would have complemented my heavily beaded dress beautifully.
And speaking of beaded dresses, one of Daddy’s Hong Kong trips resulted in a little black dress for Mama that was anything but simple. It consisted of a black, fitted silk sheath with a 3/4 length beaded tunic. It made my little girl heart yearn to grow enough to borrow that dress. By the time I was old enough to borrow it, the sheath had died or been lost or something. I had possession of the tunic but nothing to wear under it. For years, it was impossible to find anything that would work under that dress. I did finally cobble something together and have worn it a few times.
The dress is heavy. I can’t imagine wearing a full-length beaded dress after running around in this one a few times – beauty queens have my grudging respect on that score.
By the time I could wear the dress, I realized that both the dress and the purse had probably been made by some child who went nearly blind from the work involved and likely wasn’t paid more than a few cents for their effort. I dithered for awhile and finally decided that it was better to honor that child’s labor by using and caring for the dress than to hide it in a closet. It’s fitting that dress is heavy – luxury born of slave labor is a heavy burden.
While the dress hangs in my closet and I occasionally skitter past it, pausing to ponder when and where I might wear it again, the purse simply faded from my memory. Mama tells me now that it succumbed to old age and she doesn’t even know where it is – likely it’s tucked away somewhere.
What she and I also didn’t know was that Daddy bought an identical purse for his mother. A few weeks ago, after Emma’s funeral, I was given the purse. By the look of it, she used it more than a time or two. I’ve been imagining the where and why that she had cause to carry a heavily beaded, white satin silk evening purse. I like the images that crowd my head during such imaginings. It changes, subtly, every thing I thought I knew about her.
I was honored to be given the purse. The next time I wear the dress, I’ll carry the purse – in honor of the grandmother I didn’t know as well as I thought I did and in honor of the children who spent hours beading. A purse that began as a souvenir ends up an unwritten memoir. A definite design spins an enigma. And a simple purchase made 40 years ago still reverberates. There’s a Great Truth buried in there, but I don’t want to disturb the beading to pick it out.