When I was a girl, I loved going through my mother’s pretty things. She had a mirrored tray of French perfumes, which I’d open and inhale. She had a drawer full of jewelry, with stories about how each piece came to be hers, a scarf drawer that smelled powdery and luxurious, and a shelf full of purses.
Most of the purses – or pocketbooks as she called them -- she used, but one was tucked inside a red velvet drawstring bag like a bottle of Crown Royal.
The brown crocodile purse within was, of course, the one I endowed with glamorous appeal.
It was a sturdy-structured handbag, the opposite of today’s feed-sack style, with a well-proportioned strap handle. A tidy gold clasp held it firmly closed. I never saw her carry it.
But I imagined a day, before her life was overtaken by full-time work as a school nurse, two rambunctious kids, church activities and warp-speed domesticity, when she might have.
I wanted to believe that once upon a time she had a dashing younger life, and the crocodile purse fueled that speculation. In any case, I was given the impression that the purse in the velvet bag was reserved for fancy occasions.
However, Mom’s life wasn’t fancy. The only time I saw her dolled up was once a year for dad’s office holiday party, which she admitted she didn’t enjoy that much. Mostly my parents were content to stay home or socialize with church friends, a ho-hum, non-crocodile-purse bunch.
But there had been one big night. In Sens, France. My father was transferred there when I was an infant and we stayed a few years. One evening my parents dined at a restaurant in a then-posh hotel called Hotel de Paris et de la Poste. It must have been a special occasion, an anniversary, perhaps, because she talked about that dinner for years.
The butter came curled, she said. And they had escargot.
Fast forward several decades. Mom is now in an assisted living center. This year, as I’ve previously shared, I sorted through my parents’ possessions, to clear out their old home and sell it, a trying task on many levels.
Months later, I’m still thinking about that purse. See, I was trying to make quick decisions about what possessions to keep, toss or sell, but I hit a hard stop when I came across the red velvet bag.
I slid the crocodile purse out reverently. I looked inside and saw a folded paper, brittle and yellow with age: the menu from the night she dined at the Hotel de Paris et de la Poste. This was indeed a big night in her life; she carried her best pocketbook.
And this is what happens when you clear out a loved one’s. You’re plowing through a closet and wham! Maybe it’s not a crocodile purse with a folded menu. Maybe it’s a parent’s college diploma or military uniform that forces the question: What do I do with this now?
Before I tell you what I did, I’ll share what psychology experts I talked to said when I asked for the deeper reasons we get so attached to our parents’ stuff, and how to deal with it:
Dr. Daniel Bober, psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at Yale.
• Explanation: Attachment is normal and healthy in humans, said Dr. Bober. It starts very early, when an infant gets attached to a parent or caretaker. This attachment can then get transferred to certain objects that become symbolic of this comfort and security. In children, this is often a stuffed toy or blanket. Adults make similar transfers to objects that belong to loved ones.
When we lose someone dear, and go through their stuff, it’s painful because these objects remind us that everything in life is temporary. That makes us want to hang on to these object, but no object will bring happiness.
• Advice: To detach, tell yourself that the important attachment is not to any object but to the person that object represents. Whether you keep the object or let it go doesn’t change your connection to a loved one.
• Payoff: Just as concrete objects can clutter your home, mental objects can clutter your mind and your progress in life. Clearing out old stuff, mentally or physically, makes way for new experiences and clears the path to let you move forward and leave the past in the past.
Dr. Carolyn Daitch, Director, Center for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders, near Detroit, and author of “Anxiety Disorders: The Go-To Guide”
• Explanation: Parents’ stuff is emotionally charged because the things get merged with the person, said Dr. Daitch. Letting go feels like betrayal, like you’re throwing out their love and their legacy. People worry that if they get rid of a loved one’s things, they’ll lose the memory. But they won’t. Plus, people don’t usually miss things once they’re gone, she said. They adapt.
• Advice: Be mindful as you sort. Observe your feelings: Say, oh, there’s that fearful thought again, that fear of making a mistake or of betrayal, or guilt. Then tell yourself, “I can be uncomfortable and not want to do this, but I can handle it and will live through this.”
• Payoff: The upside is that you declutter your home, and that you don’t adhere to irrational thinking, and thus irrational behavior.
Dr. Ramani Durvasula, psychologist, and co-host of Oxygen's "My Shopping Addiction."
• Explanation: Letting go of a parent’s stuff is difficult when there is sentimentality attached, said Dr. Durvasula. Hanging on represents a way to stay connected to a parent no longer with you, though the memories, not the object, are the true connection.
• Advice: If going through the selection with siblings, don't get greedy and treat it as a grab and go, said Durvasula. These objects will give you less solace than you think. Still, we see family member fighting over ugly china no one will ever use.
• Payoff: Investing in relationships while loved ones are alive is far more rewarding than fighting about their stuff afterward. In the end, those conversations will stay with you longer than the crystal candy bowl.
As for the crocodile purse, once I took a dispassionate look at this romanticized object, it appeared to be just what it was, an old woman’s handbag, too passé to be fashionable. The handle was cracked with age not use.
I couldn’t picture myself ever using it, nor either of my daughters. But, still, it was sentimental.
I paused to think about why mom had saved a purse she never used for this all these years. And an answer came: Because it reminded her of another time, another side of her that she hung onto so she could show me who she once was.
As I looked at the purse and the relic of a menu, I realized in that moment she had just done that. That was all the purse needed to do.
Later, I told my daughters about the crocodile purse, and we talked about grandma’s big night. I painted a picture in their minds of their grandma as a dashing young woman out on the town with her handsome husband. And we let the purse go.
Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through www.marnijameson.com.