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Clutching her purse, she was braced for impact. The anxious posture foretold of a plane crash, but the Dash 8 hadn’t even left the tarmac.
Nevertheless, my Grandmother was under imminent threat: The flight attendant had asked for all bags to be stowed away—which meant purses, too. Her eyes followed me as I dutifully put my shoulder bag under the seat in front of me.
I turned to her and smiled and she looked out the window, holding her purse a little bit tighter.
Her daughters would have described their mother as a “Tough Old Bird,” and she’d have agreed with that characterization. But, on this day, as I shepherded her through the various airports and security check-points, she went soft: she transformed into a pampered celebrity, flowered into a hot house orchid before my very eyes. At one point, Mimi appeared to no longer speak or understand English. Whenever someone asked her a question, she’d motion towards me, her personal attaché and official spokesperson.
Of course, the role of travel companion is perfect for grandchildren. Who better to buffer their parents’ parents from a cruel and indifferent world that no longer respects them or values the contributions they’ve made? The compassionate understanding of shared DNA, a generation removed, is a great comfort in a fast-paced world.
The worried expression on Mimi’s face told me she was processing the purse problem, weighing the pros and cons of playing the part of obstinate old lady in order to avoid surrendering her handbag. This was before September 11, 2001—the skies were friendlier then—and a certain amount of pig-headedness, especially among the elderly, was still tolerated.
Whenever my Grandmother went out in the world she struck a singular pose—clutching her purse for dear life. She had a collection of handbags that were more or less identical: the iconic granny purse with short-handles, not too big, not too small, with decorative faux tapestry outer panels and lots of zippered pockets. To see her without it would have been wrong—like catching a glimpse of her in a girdle, or like the handful of times I saw her without her dentures.
The twin-engine turboprop airliner roared to life, and verbal communication became all but impossible. I used sign language, pointing from the purse to the floor. She shook her head, “No!”
I decided to let the Flight Attendant navigate the moment of separation. No doubt she’d been schooled in the finer points of seizing purses from uncooperative old ladies, probably done it a thousand times with women just as tough, or tougher, than my Grandmother. Air Canada must have a whole chapter in the policy and procedures manual devoted to old gals and how to artfully disconnect them from their handbags before take-off.
Just as the primitive aircraft began to taxi, a perfectly-proportioned woman, wearing a navy blue pantsuit and a neck scarf, came through the claustrophobic cabin to check seats and tray tables. She very quickly eyed the non-compliant purse.
I read her lips: “Ma’am, you’ll have to put your purse away.”
The two just stared at each other. Mimi began squeezing the handles of her purse, as if she were kneading a small amount of dough. We’d managed to survive the brief parting of woman-and-purse at airport security, but this was a much bigger deal: Showcase Showdown was about to begin.
“What the hell is in that bag anyway?” I thought to myself—whodunit photos from the grassy knoll... a map to the alien holding tank at Area 51?
Plain to me now, though, is that it was never really about the contents of the bag, but about the bag itself: the touch and feel of it, the weight of it, the presence and comfort of it. The purse was a security object—as much as any child’s blanket has ever been. I know this to be true because these days I have one of my very own. (Mine is patent leather, though, no faux tapestry zippered panels for me... not yet, anyway.)
The older I get, the more like my Grandmother I become: leaving tea bags all over the kitchen, needing a particular corner of the couch, unable to cope with the big, scary world and its apocalyptic 24/7 news cycle, hanging on to the grab handle in the car (the “Oh Sh&%” handle) always braced for impact. And then there’s the purse. More and more, during life’s difficult moments, I find myself clutching it, cradling it—as if it were a cross between a pillow and a football—using it to reinforce my anxious middle whenever a bit of self-soothing is required.
As soon as we reached cruising altitude I quickly rescued the stranded purse and placed it on Mimi’s lap. (Flight Attendants always get their way... eventually.)
“Thank you,” she said, wrapping her arms around the bag. The relief was palpable. “What would I do without you?”
I’m still not sure if she was talking to me... or the purse.