I originally published this in March 2019 in another personal space I used to keep on the internet. I’m republishing it on Medium to keep my online writing together.
This morning when I arrived at work, almost the moment I stepped through the door, the strap on my purse broke. The purse is small and leather, more like a wallet on a strap that I wear over one shoulder, pressed against my side. There’s nothing special about the purse except that my mother bought it for a trip she took to Italy years ago. I’m not sure if she bought it in Italy or just took it with her, but either way, I like to imagine her thinking that it was the perfect size for travel — compact but big enough to hold a phone, money, cards, and maybe even a small notebook.
I have a diary my mother kept during that trip. In my mind, she’d always wanted to go to Italy, but I can’t remember if that’s true or if it’s something I’ve made up. Either way, she went to Italy as part of a group tour she arranged as an add on to the trip she took to visit me when I lived in London.
I can remember a few things about her visit to the United Kingdom. Eating fish and chips with her at a pub in Notting Hill. That it must have been spring because the cherry blossoms were out and my allergies were hideous during one of the days we walked around. How she reacted to jet lag —when we were walking from the Tube to my flat, she was disoriented and thought that the “To Let” signs on houses for sale said “Toilet”. She looked at me incredulously and asked whether people were advertising to let people use their bathrooms. I remember taking her to Cardiff briefly, where it rained (because Wales) and how she disliked my attic flat because the rafter windows and sky lights made her feel claustrophobic. She was briefly homesick and said she missed her grandson Seth.
The day she set off for Italy, I took her to the train station because I had to hurry to work. She seemed a bit scared but excited. Looking back, I can’t believe I didn’t make the time to go with her. I know from her diary that she loved Italy and her aloneness seemed to add a magic, introspective dimension to her experience. My mom always worked hard, had kids, a husband, her siblings, and my grandparents to look after. I don’t know if she ever had much time to just listen to the voice in her own head and it seemed like it didn’t stop talking to her in Italy. Reading the diary, she sounds euphoric and sad and like she so desperately wants to hold on to the woman she became there.
The purse that broke today was with her on that trip and somehow, afterwards, found its way into the big old trunk in her living room where I found it while going through her things after she died. I’ve carried it with me nearly every day since, for nearly two and a half years. In New York, in France, in the UK, in South Africa, in Savannah, in San Francisco … it’s been with me. And today the strap finally broke.
While walking home from work, I shoved it in the pocket of my coat but close to home, near Bathurst and King Street West in Toronto, the zipper must have opened up a little bit and change spilled out onto the sidewalk. It was rush hour so the street was packed. I apologized (for some reason) and a woman stopped and helped me pick up a bunch of change. She handed it to me and said, “We’ve got to save the quarters.”
It was really kind.