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Purse Dust

Virginia Watts's picture

It is in the details, the minutiae, that we discover and begin to understand another's life. So much meaning in such tiny things.  Purse dust, I call it.

And the first time I understood it was a day when I was full of resentment, frustration, anger, and grief.  An ordinary day, really, for so many. The day of moving a grandmother, an aunt, a dad, out of their home and into a safe place. A retirement place. A place that may or may not actually become a home, again, for them. A day of sadness, driven by hope. Pin pricks of hope that there might be new connections, less worry, less responsibility, more life.

Anna, our grandmother, always wound her long, gray braids tightly around her head, wincing as she deftly skewered them with long, frightening hairpins. She put on her black coat, even in the California summers. She always carried an enormous black leather bag with worn wooden handles. Inside there was a small coin purse that fastened with a satisfying snap, and handkerchiefs, quilt pieces, granny squares, coupons, recipes clipped from the back of boxes or magazines, knitting needles, crochet hooks, desiccated rubber bands, odd bits of string, hard candy wrapped in cellophane, toothpicks, and a pair of tiny scissors that folded in on themselves. In the very bottom lurked the odd penny, empty sugar packets, and tiny bits of grit and old face powder that clung to whatever project she pulled out.  If you needed a button, she could find one in there for you.  If you needed an aspirin, she could find that too.  If you needed a band-aid, she had one. She did not drive, but she never failed to walk the three blocks to the grocery store or the dime store, and three blocks back.  Except on Sunday.

Now she was in her 90's, and commonplace objects, tasks, were risky. She lived alone. The saucepan on the stove had been left to burn one too many times.  The fall that could come on the steep front steps, or in the bathroom, on the sidewalk, was just waiting to happen.  Then one day she reached for her purse, dropped it, and fell on her arm as she was trying to pick it up.  One broken arm later, we knew she had to be where she was no longer alone.  She needed to move to The Safe Place.

April and I had spent a week sorting, packing and holding a sad garage sale on the front lawn.  Amazing what people will buy and what they won't.  Even the flavor straws from the 50's and the baking powder tin from the 30's were snapped up.  But nobody wanted the wing backed chair or the telephone table or the jelly jars.  Thank god for the Salvation Army.  They took everything we couldn't sell and didn't want to keep.  The movers had finished loading the van.  The pieces that were going to The Safe Place were marked with masking tape and loaded first, the rest would go to storage.  Our grandmother had stood, the corners of her mouth threatening to slide off her chin, as every box and stick of furniture was carried out.  The purse was the one thing she wouldn't let anyone touch.  She insisted on carrying it herself, even though she only had one free arm.  It was one of the few things we could still let her do.  The family had decided she couldn't stay in her house, or walk to the boulevard alone.  We couldn't trust her to wash her own clothes, cook her own meals, because in those tasks, in that house, was too much risk.  We would not let her be alone, not anymore.  But she could, she would, carry her own purse.

Just as we were getting into the car to follow the van, she stopped.  She looked at the house that had been built sixty years before by a husband who was not the father of her first child, a son. She had two daughters with him and he was never allowed in her bedroom after the last one was born.  That child, my aunt, was now fifty-two. Our grandmother had received visitors in that house after he died twenty years ago, and then again just last year, those same visitors came after her son died.  She served cake and thin slices of ham and cheese, strong black coffee with tinned cream, and sugar cubes.  She had to borrow a preacher for the funerals both times, from the daughter who went to church.  She had to borrow the visitors, too.

"The leaves on the porch need to be swept," she said. 

"It doesn't matter, they're tearing the house down," we replied. 

"The hose -- you've left the hose!"

"It's all right.  You don't need it.  No one needs it."

"I've left my silver coffee pot!  Where's the silver coffee pot?!!" She was heading back into the house. 

"You don't have a silver coffee pot!  What are you talking about?"  We steered her back to the car, and settled her firmly inside.

"Yes, yes, I do have a silver coffee pot!  I haven't seen it for a long time, but I remember it now and I want to take it with me.  Your uncle put it up high in that cupboard over the stove, way in the back." She was rummaging through her purse with her one good hand, agitated.  To calm her we said we would check.

We walked up the broad cement stairs onto the porch  and through the door that had slammed on our mothers, slammed on our fathers, slammed on her husband.  The door that had never been slammed on her son, even when he came home drunk and belligerent.  We went back into the empty house that smelled of dust and years of burned lima beans, boiled beef, coffee and soggy washrags hanging in the bathroom.  She hadn't taken a bath for years.  The tub had become her mortal enemy long before any of us knew it.  She "sponged off."

"Emily, you do realize there is no silver coffee pot," said April decisively. "I checked all the cabinets.  They were all empty."

"I know, but shouldn't we look one more time?  I think she's getting mad," I said, indecisively.

We could see from the front window that she was still rummaging in her bag.

April yanked open the cabinet above stove, standing on tiptoe to reach to the back.  "There are little bits of 'things,' in here, Emily.  I don't even want to think what they might be.  Yuck."

"Reach around behind the vent pipe."

"Oh my god -- there is a coffee pot!  It's heavy as lead!  Could it possibly be silver? I think I can pull it out from the other side.  Good thing our mothers aren't here, they'd be fighting over who was going to get the damn thing."

Our mothers weren't there.  Mine was on heavy-duty meds in an expensive country-club type mental institution, since lithium hadn't been discovered yet.  April's mother was battling her own demons, manifested in various and amorphous physical ailments.  That particular day she was in the grip of a migraine.

The illusive pot was silver all right -- silver in color.  April was holding an old aluminum coffee maker and it was so full of pennies the lid wouldn't close.  "This used to sit on the stove!  When did she start using it as a bank? Coffee would just sit in there and stew all day long.  She'd keep adding water to it, remember?" April poured some of the pennies onto the counter and peered into the pot.  "See the stains?  Yuck, again."

"What I remember is the sugar cube she kept in her mouth when she drank the coffee.  No wonder her teeth are so bad." I scooped up the pennies and put them back into the pot.  "Let's go.  The moving van just pulled out."

"How much do you think is in there, anyway?  She must have been saving pennies for years!"

"Feature it -- she sells her house for a quarter of a million dollars, and is still hoarding pennies!"

When we got back to the car our grandmother insisted on holding the pot.  Between the bulky black coat, the cast on her arm, her purse and the penny pot, she looked like a refugee from some bizarre tag sale.  Somehow we managed to get the seat belt fastened around her.

"The moving van is going to take the stuff to storage first before they bring the things you're taking with you to Park Vista.  Do you feel like some lunch?" I was starving.  We'd been packing since 7 a.m. without a break, and it was now almost 1:30.

"Take me to that nice Denny's on the corner.  They have good coffee."  I knew April was rolling her eyes.  Denny's was always Gran's first choice, and we hated it.  But we knew that's where we'd wind up.  We had to let her go there, because it was one of the things we could still let her do.  Hopefully she'd leave the penny pot in the car.

"So when did you start collecting all those pennies?"  I asked, heading towards the dreaded Denny's. 

"I don't know.  One day I just started putting them in there.  Maybe when your mother bought me that electric coffee maker.  I still don't understand why she has to be in that awful place.  And I don't know why your mother couldn't help you girls today, April.  I've got a headache too."

"Well, they're not here and we are.  So that's that.  How're you going to spend all those pennies?" April was always trying to steer the conversation away from an argument.  For that matter, so was I.  "How about a new purse or a new coat, Gran?"  I caught April's eye in the rearview mirror.  She was grinning.

"Nothing wrong with this purse or this coat, I already told Emily.  You girls.  So extravagant.  You don't know hard times.  You remember what I remember, you put something by for a rainy day. Ouch!  Watch out!"

I'd hit a bump.  "Sorry, Gran."  Her face had gone pale with the pain, but she still clutched the penny pot and the purse.

When we reached Denny's we did convince her to leave the pot in the car.  We got her settled in her usual booth.  Her favorite waitress, a cup of coffee already in hand, came over to greet her.  April and I excused ourselves and went to the restroom.

"How often do you bring her here, Em? They sure seem to know who she is."

"Every Sunday, like it was church or something.  Yeah -- she can charm the socks off a waitress or a salesgirl.  They're always glad to see her come back.  Notice how much she's smiling?  Ever see that when she's at home?"

"Not very often.  Shit -- remember that time she started tearing her hair?  Were you there?"

"We both were there!  She was not just tearing her hair, she was tearing into our mothers!  I think it had to do with money.  Your mom needed to borrow some, and my mom was there to help with the persuasion.  How old were we?  I think I was eight and you must have been six.  I remember trying to keep you out of the way.  No wonder the neighbors never came around."

"I do remember I called her an old perfume bottle!"

"What on earth did you mean by that?"

"In my six year old mind it just seemed like it fit.  She's always had that slightly rancid, sweet smell about her."

"It's her teeth.  And that dime store face-powder."

I managed to get the newspaper ink off my hands and wash my face.  April always looked tidy, but today even she had to make an extra effort, retying her mass of red hair at the back of her neck.  She looked at me and laughed.  "You look like an unkempt chicken with that short hair!  Why don't you find a stylist who can give you a decent cut!"  She moved towards me with her hairbrush, and I backed away.  

"Give it up, April.  It's hopeless.  Let's go eat.  I'm starving."

Gran had already ordered her vegetable soup and cornbread.  "I don't know what you girls want to eat.  You sure took a long time in there."

The waitress came back to fill the coffee cup.  April and I both asked for cottage cheese and fruit, about the only thing on the menu that would somewhat resemble what it was supposed to be.  I ordered a glass of wine, that being the only advantage, in my mind, of this particular coffee shop.  Wine or beer was always one way to get through those Sunday lunches.  April changed the order to a carafe and three glasses, winking at me.

"You girls and your wine!" Gran was trying to butter her cornbread with one hand.

"Let me do that, Gran.  April and I only drink it on special occasions.  You know, like Sundays."

"Hmmmph."  Her favorite word.  It worked in Swedish or English.

The waitress returned, placed the carafe and the glasses on the table, looked at me, raised an eyebrow, and left.  Clearly we were about to get the old lady tipsy.  She'd never seen her drink anything but coffee.  When Gran realized there was a glass for her, she was horrified.

"I don't want that stuff!  Why did you order a glass for me? Take it away."

April wouldn't take no for an answer.  "Come on, Gran, just try it.  You know you used to drink a little port now and then.  See if you like this.  It's quite nice -- and isn't it a pretty color?"  We'd ordered a white zinfandel, it was the best Denny's had to offer.

"Hmmmph."

I stood up.

"I think I'd better call the Park Vista and let them know when to expect us."

The Park Vista was not at all concerned about when we might arrive.  I just needed to get out of there for five minutes by myself.  The moving van had already been there and dropped off the furniture for Gran's room.  The Park did want to know what she'd be ordering for dinner, however.  The choices were beef stew, red snapper, or grilled cheese.  I told them grilled cheese, knowing that whatever choice I made would be the wrong one.  By the time I got back to the table, Gran had drunk half her wine.  I looked at April.  She just smiled, and topped off the glass.  Gran's cheeks were bright pink.

"Yah.  This is pretty good.  Not too heavy.  No, April, don't give me any more!"

"So, Gran, you were saying that you did drink on special occasions too, back in Sweden?"  April had put some cottage cheese on a piece of lettuce, topped it with a piece of pineapple, and was eating it with her fingers like a taco.

"Only on the days we had company.  The men would go into the sitting room and smoke and drink their aquavit, and the women would stay in the kitchen and clean up the dishes.  Then they would pour the port wine, and the talk would start."

"So what did you talk about, anyway?"  This was rare.  She never said anything about Sweden.  Even to our mothers. The subject was off-limits.

"Oh, this and that.  Mostly about the men, I guess. I was pretty young then, so I was only allowed to listen.  My mother did give me a sip of port once in awhile, though."

"So how old would you have been, then?" I asked, holding my breath.  I was dying to know when she had left Sweden to come to America.

"Maybe fifteen.  Yah, I think about fifteen.  That last time."

"What last time?"

Gran took another sip of her wine.   "Ah, that was a long time ago.  I don't remember so good after all these years."

I looked at April.  "How old were you when you came to America, Gran?" I'd asked the forbidden question.

"Why is everybody always asking?  I was old enough, that's all.  Old enough to come. My brothers brought me.  There was no work in the old country.  My father and mother lost their farm, we had to go.  They could not feed us."

April and I had never seen these brothers, nor had our mothers.  Our uncle, who was five years older than my mother, never had, either.  But we all knew that our uncle was not our grandfather's son.  Everybody knew that.  The information about the farm and her brothers was more than she had ever given out before.  Could it be that here in Denny's, under the influence of a cheap glass of wine, we would learn the truth about her past? April poured a little more wine into Gran's glass.  She didn't object.

"Emily, help me get this coat off.   It's hot in here.  And take me to the restroom.  Bring my bag."

I quickly jumped up and helped her out of her coat.  Unbelievable.  She had asked me to carry the bag.  April was smirking, filling her own glass again.  I leaned over the table to pick up the bag.  "Hey, save some of that for me!"

It was crowded in the little bathroom stall with the two of us and that enormous purse.  But she couldn't manage on her own with her broken arm, so I had to help her.  She was wearing slacks with an elastic waist, so that wasn't too difficult.

"Go out.  I'll call you when I'm done." I squeezed between her knees and the door, and stood outside the stall waiting.

"You know, I was sixteen when I left there.  My mother didn't even say goodbye."  Here it was. Information. From a bathroom stall.  I heard the toilet flush.  I was speechless.

"All right.  I'm ready.  Come help me."

Did I dare ask another question?  I pulled up her baggy old-lady underwear, and then her slacks.  "Why, Gran?  Why didn't she say goodbye?"

"She didn't want me to leave.  My father was the one.  He said I had to go with my brothers."

I helped her wash her hand and we walked back to the table.

"April.  Gran just told me she was sixteen when she left Sweden with her brothers.  Her mother didn't even say goodbye." April looked at me, astonished.  "Why?"

"Times were hard.  You girls don't know. Times were very hard.  Things were bad.  She handed me a little bag of coins, that's all.  No goodbye."

"Her mother didn't want her to go but her father insisted."

"Jesus."

"April!" Gran never would tolerate swearing.  "Watch your mouth!  I'm done with my soup.  I want some more coffee."

We sat there for another ten minutes.  April and I finished the wine, Gran finished her coffee.  She started fretting about her arm, and complaining about having to move.  No more talk about Sweden.  She had me help her put her coat on.  Then she realized her bag wasn't there.

"Emily!  Where's my bag?"

"On my god.  It was in the stall with you." I got up and ran to the restroom.  It was still there, sitting stoically by the toilet.  I wiped it down with a paper towel, brushing off what I imagined to be years of accumulated germs and despair.

April had paid the check, and they stood by the door.  Gran looked very small, standing next to April, clutching her arm with her good hand.  When she saw me she let go of April, and grabbed the purse.

"It's okay, Gran.  It was right where we left it. No harm done."

"I'm tired.  Take me to that place.  I want to lie down."

She said very little for the rest of the day.  We arranged her things, made sure the floor attendants knew she was there and would be checking on her.  She didn't even complain about the grilled cheese sandwich.  When we were getting ready to leave she handed April the penny pot.  "Here.  You girls take these.  There's no room for them here.  You spend them.  Spend them all.  Buy some wine."

Neither one of us could say a word.  Not even goodbye.

Comments

I love this story. I feel I am right there with you. Hope you did buy some wine.Bev

Thank you!  And yes, of course....

I was there... (spoiler) both times.  The first time I remember taking the doorknobs.  The second time I remember her trying to give me the family bible... which looking back on it she probably wanted her first great-grandchild to have as a record of the family... but I refused it because I couldn't read Swedish.  - J

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