Mary J. Breen
No little girl playing dress-up in the ’50s would have sashayed down her street in a too-long dress, too-big shoes, and too-big hat without a too-big purse over one arm. We loved dressing up, but we weren’t just playing; we were rehearsing. We were trying on the power of The Purse—who did and didn’t carry it, who could and couldn’t look in it, what should and shouldn’t be carried in it, when it should and shouldn’t be carried, and how. And why.
Like all the mother’s, mine never went anywhere without her all-in-one locker/ emergency kit/ fashion accessory/ badge of office. Besides taking it shopping, it went with her to church, afternoon teas, bridge parties, hospital visits, even summer drives in the country. Every few years she replaced it with an almost-identical one—always black leather, never plastic, never straw, never cloth, and never coloured; not cheap but not extravagant; not clutch size but not a shopping bag either.
Her purses carried a lot of important stuff: keys for the car, house, and post office box; little flat squaretin of Anacin for headaches; little flat round tin of Camphor Ice for chapped lips; clear plastic fold-out rain bonnet in plastic envelope printed with ad for local drug store; loose Kleenexes; yellow box of Chicklets; white plastic comb threaded with stray white hairs and stained with blue rinse; bobby pins; nail file; reading glasses; brown spiral-topped notebook; imitation tortoiseshell mechanical pencil; tiny bottle of Avon Topaze perfume; red Avon lipstick, and gold compact with a raised image of the Empire State Building on top, its little swing-out mirror covering a puff and loose powder that left sweet pink dust over everything. Change went into a small coin purse firmly attached inside her purse with a long elastic cord; banknotes went into a black billfold along with her driver’s license and a few photos inside two plastic sleeves—my father beside a totem pole in BC, my father in a standard teacher’s school photo, me as a baby, me on my tricycle, her brother and wife, and an old friend long dead—our heads roughly snipped from photographs and floating like ghosts held down with yellowing Scotch tape.
My mother’s purse also carried a blessed St. Christopher medal safety-pinned to the lining, a crystal rosary in a tiny zipped pouch, a black lace mantilla for quick visits to church, and a dark red Sunday missal with a gold bleeding heart on the cover, its flesh aflame and entwined with thorns. The role of a modern-day Defender of the Faith came naturally to my mother; she liked the part and she looked the part. She was six feet tall, solid, heavy, and fearless, not unlike that hymn we sang at school, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, though she’d have mightily disapproved of that comparison since the hymn was written by Martin Luther—another Protestant thinking he knew better than Holy Mother Church. She encased her ample size in robust corsets, formal dark dresses, black seal coat, support stockings, sensible shoes, wide-brimmed hats, and good white gloves. And a sturdy black purse. She stood with back straight, head high, prepared if necessary to defend The One True Faith. Of course you only need armour if you have enemies, and my mother believed she did; they were called Protestants. “Are they one of us?” was the first question she wanted answered if anyone moved into the neighbourhood. Her purses were a statement of who she was, and who she was not.
My mother gave the unmistakable message that she was a competent, confident, fashion-conscious (though hardly avant-garde), dignified, no-nonsense woman. Hers was the uniform of a woman in charge. Before she, Claudia Dillon, married my father in 1938 at age 35, she had been in charge of many things: who did what in the classrooms where she taught; who sang what in the Toronto Catholic schools where she was Music Supervisor, and who played what and when in the dance band she set up. After she became Mrs. J. L. Breen, she took charge of what foods were eaten and when, and what clothes were worn, and what books were read, and what games were played, and what TV was watched, and who came and who went and where they sat and where they didn’t. And, as much as she could, she tried to be completely in charge of me, her only child.
After she died, her purses were some of the toughest things to give away. Although she was hard on me, domineering woman that she was, she also showed me what it is to be self-confident and tenacious, to stick to your guns, to stand up straight, purse over your arm, ready for what life brings.
About the Author: Mary J. Breen is the author of two books about women's health. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in national newspapers, essay collections, travel magazines, health journals, and literary magazines including Brick, The Christian Science Monitor, Ars Medica, The National Post, and The New Quarterly. She was a regular contributor to The Toast. She lives in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, where, among other things, she teaches writing.