I was once asked if not having a place to go to “visit” my mother’s remains, like a gravesite, was hard.
I’ve thought about her a lot lately. I think about her every day, but it’s usually a small blip of, “oh that reminds me of her” or “she would have liked to see The Kid do that”. But lately it’s more significant, more tangible.
I was going through my closet, searching for things to rid myself of, the clutter of life collected after 37+ years of living. I happened upon a tote full of purses. There was a Dooney and Burke handbag my mother in law gave me, a Coach duffle, that’s probably fake, and a purple purse.
This purple purse has significance to me. I eyeballed this purse for a month. Told myself I didn’t need it, couldn’t afford it. But it was only $35, I think. I wanted it badly, but knew that I only carried purses for a little while then stopped.
I eventually convinced myself to get it, it’s not a fancy brand name, it’s not the best looking purse. But I got it and told myself I’d carry it forever. I think I did for a long time. My iPad fit in it and so it became a briefcase of sorts.
I eventually bought a pretty floral wallet and pouch to match—purse organization is important—and was so proud of it. But eventually, like every purse, I stopped carrying it. I got bored of packing one, it got too full and heavy, I just didn’t need all that stuff.
But guess who decided they wanted to borrow it? Yep. My momma.
Mom was a purse lover. She was very particular about the purse she carried. And apparently the purple purse suited her needs. So I loaned it to her.
She was also a smoker, however. Up until the last four months of her life she smoked heavily. I knew the purse would come back to me reeking of the smell, but being the daughter of smokers, I’ve learned how to get rid of it. So it didn’t bother me much.
By the time she died one April, I’d completely forgotten about the purse. I don’t know how long she’d had it. But after her death, we were going through her things as a family, and there it was, still in good condition, with the wallet and pouch still in fine shape as well.
And it did not reek of cigarette smoke. It smelled like the faux leather it was made of, the house it was stored in, and by association: her.
Everyone has their own unique smell. A combination of bodily chemistry, and the things we surround ourselves with. That’s why perfume can smell different on one person than it does another. Just like everyone, Mom had her own unique smell. Her bodily chemistry, the house she lived in, and yes even the cigarette smoke.
The thing is, I never smelled the smoke on her, unless she was actively smoking. and even after she quit completely, I never smelled anything but her.
And when I opened up that tote with those purses just a few days ago, I didn’t at first recognize that smell. It was a nostalgic smell, a scent of dusty old memories kept in an enclosed container for far too long. And it had been so long, more than four years in fact, since I looked at that purse, I didn’t realize the significance of it.
But then I opened it up, after having tossed it aside to view the fake Coach duffle (I’m pretty sure it’s fake based on the format of the serial number don’t tell my mother in law it’s fake). Inside that purple purse, was the wallet and pouch, but also another reminder of my mother. Two unused bottles of Vanilla Fields perfume, still in the box. Her signature scent and absolute favorite.
Our last Christmas with her I’d purchased her four bottles, it was just a few dollars a bottle—a Christmas special—I gifted her some every year. And every year she was absolutely thrilled to have it. She’d open one up and immediately spray some on her neck and wrists.
Also in the purse were two tubes of lipstick, one I’d given her and one she’d purchased herself. Both had been used and both, being at least five years old, weren’t in the best of shape. Like the perfume, the lipsticks have gone off too.
Of all the things I’d gathered up that day to put in my mother-in-law’s yard sale, that purse, and it’s contents, will not be finding a new home. Between that being something I had to convince myself to buy, and her being the last to carry it, it stays.
Perhaps one day, when I’m feeling like carrying a purse again, instead of shopping around for a new one, I’ll dig into that closet, to the bottom tote in the middle, the black one. I’ll open up that lid, letting the smell waft out and permeate the air, and pull that purse from storage.
But then it’d start to smell less like her and more like me, and I don’t know that I’m ready for that.
Is not having a gravesite to visit when I’m thinking of my mom hard? No. Not only do I have a purple purse that smells of her, several pairs of earrings that belonged to her, but also, a small glass bottle of her ashes. I also have her with me, in my heart and mind.
These fleshy husks of skin and bone and tissues aren’t going to last forever. These are not who we are. These are what carries us around this mortal world. When our bodies finally reach their expiration date and spoil, we leave them. 37+ years in and I still don’t know where the rest goes, if anywhere. But I know that she is not those ashes or a body that those ashes became. She is the memory that I have, triggered by the smell of that purse, those bottles of Vanilla Fields. And I can visit her, and talk to her anytime I want. She may not answer back (I’d question my sanity if she did) but I know I can remember her anytime I want to.