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My Mother's Purse

Stephanie Akers Cohen is a member of the Gurdjieff Foundation of Oregon.

June 23rd would have been the 96th anniversary of my mother, Jean’s, birth. Funny that during one of our last visits before she died she said, “I guess the only thing left for me to do is turn 96.” The way she said it told me that it wasn’t going to happen and that both of us knew it. So, while I can't celebrate with her, I can share a memory.

After my father passed away in 2013 I brought my mother from Los Angeles to Oregon so I could help care for her. The first birthday she spent with me was her 89th and in addition to having a small party for her, I bought her a new purse.

My mother was one of those women whose purse was more like a portable filing cabinet than a fashion accessory. Although she replaced her purses from time to time they were always the same … black, adjustable straps, lots of compartments, but not too big. The one she brought with her from Los Angeles was tearing in places and crammed so full that the zippers were beginning to break. I asked her if I could help her clean it out but she would have none of it. Her purse was hers as was everything in it.

The new purse was an excuse to sort through the contents of the old purse, which we did together. When the first compartment was unzipped, a large volume of wadded up tissues popped out, like one of those spring-loaded snakes-in-a-can. No question what to do with that, yet it was hard to wrangle them away and into the trash can. Luckily I had a travel pack and she somewhat reluctantly made the switch. There were several little notebooks filled with reminders of things that already had been or never would be done, phone numbers for people who were no longer living, appointments that had been kept or cancelled long ago, receipts for things she no longer had. There was a key ring with a little baton that was supposed to be for self-defense, and keys to her former house and a car that she hadn’t driven for years. Her wallet was full of expired membership, ID and credit cards. She was not about to part with any of it, and the more I tried to convince her, the harder she held on.

Eventually, her purse was made manageable and even useful. In her wallet was her ID, a couple of membership cards and one credit card as well as some cash. She agreed to consolidate everything into one notebook and one address book. She kept pens, keys, a comb and make-up. And most importantly, mom's special accessible parking card was kept in her purse.

Mom didn’t really need her purse any more. She was non-ambulatory and suffering from dementia so I carried copies of all of the ID and credit cards and handled all of the transactions. I could have kept the parking card in my car, but she wanted her things in her purse. Whenever we went anywhere, before we left she made sure she had her purse, and when we returned, she insisted I put it in a safe place where nobody would find it but where she could easily get to it. That safe place was the bottom shelf of her night stand behind a small trash can. I guess that after so much her life had been taken away … her home, her husband, her independence, her memory, that it was important to have something that was still hers … something she could carry, and open and close and know that everything inside was also hers.

After she died in December, I could have cleaned out mom’s purse and donated it to a charity. Instead, I have it here, intact, with her wallet, keys, address and note book, pens, comb, make-up, and an accessible parking card that expires on her birthday in 2023. All of it just as it has been since we sat together and moved items from her old purse to the new one seven years ago.

I am not one to believe that we are watched by those who have gone before us … but I don’t quite not believe it either. So, just in case she asks, “where’s my purse?” I can say with all certainty, “it’s right here.”

My mother’s purse today. The white streaks at the bottom of it are where it rubbed against the wheels of her chair.

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