Memories Stuffed in Little Purses

“As the purse is emptied, the heart is filled.” ~Victor Hugo

My mother had a quiet passion for little coin purses. We called them ‘change purses.’ She had them, lots of them, tucked away in her dresser drawers, in the night stand and her stored-away handbags. She sent them as gifts, especially to her granddaughters, handed random ones off to people who admired them, secretly slid a special change purse into the tightly packed suitcases of loved-ones leaving her home, and chronically gave in to the urge to ‘spend a little’ on a new one, or an old one at a yard sale, or a creative one at an art fair.

Maybe it was a throwback to her childhood days during The Great Depression, when people only carried change …‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’ ….and when paper money was rarely seen. The purse was as important as the coins it held, and my mother seemed to still value and delight in the styling of those little pouches. One of the charms of living far from home, was the arrival of brown-paper packages filled with a menagerie of trinkets, newspaper clippings, and little things my mother was giving away, which, even in my children’s words, was ‘such a grandma thing,’ and is now missed. Always, there would be a change purse buried in the box.

My daughter quickly picked up on the love of the little purse. We’d find change purses hidden away in her room and closet, carrying an orphaned Barbie shoe, a sparkly sticker, sometimes an unstrung bead or a dropped bird’s feather, and a penny or two. Sometimes we would find tiny pieces of ripped up paper, a small colorful collection of seed beads, and strands of doll hair cut from the head of some unsuspecting doll; a collage of tidbits that seemed to have no rhyme or reason, except perhaps in her beautiful mind. Good Lord, we were always so curious, and a little nervous, when we opened them.

The tiny plastic change purse I bought for a dime in the 1960s.

The tiny plastic change purse I bought for a dime in the 1960s.

When I was little and we would spend our summers in our family cabin in Mid-Michigan, the summer wasn’t complete without a ‘trip to town’ and a stop at the old ‘Dime Store’ in Gladwin, Michigan. One time, my mother had given each of us little kids ten-cents for spending. That was big deal in my seven-year-old world, and we couldn’t wait to browse the wooden-floored, old-fashioned store with its aisle bursting of penny candy and childhood play things like pop-guns, paper dolls, coloring books, marbles, polished rocks, miniature puzzles, tiny games where we were challenged to line-up little steely balls into strategically placed holes, rubber snakes, whoopee cushions, wiffle balls and plastic bats, and six-shooters in kid-sized gun belts. My sister Clara and I eventually eyed our prized purchase, two little plastic change purses. Our eyes met, our hearts stopped; we knew right away that is why we had come to town. Those two little purses might as well have had our names printed on them. We were in a state of consumer bliss when we slid our skinny, silver dimes over the counter to the cashier. Fifty years later, we both still have them, and the sweet memory of that day.

My mother now gone, my daughter since moved away from home, I am here still holding on to a multitude of tiny money cases that once were treasures to those two beloved women in my life, plus a couple of my own. I even have one of my father’s. Worn leather with tiny travel decals now faded out; it was designed to look like a traveler’s suitcase of those romantic train travel days. I remember looking at it in wonder and seeing it in my father’s handsome hands that I loved so well.

Like so much of what we gather, hold on to, save, and cherish, I’m at that point in life when I’m incline to start letting these things go. Done filling rooms, no longer in hopes of finding a ‘big’ house for all my bits of antiquity; there simply isn’t a drawer or closet left for one more little change purse.

And yet, I look at them, this collection of my mother and daughters, and I put them back into a bigger bag and wait for another day; a day, when I am feeling courageous or maybe too feeble to care.

Sometimes I bravely muse at the possibility of selling those little change purses at a garage sale. I imagine some little girl, whose mother has given her a small amount of money to spend on some choice item during their day of exploring garage sales, eyeing my collection of change purses. I see her fingers plying the tartan, the beaded kitty, or tiny embroidery embellishments, her eyes wide open at the beauty of such a small purse that fits so nicely in her little hand.

I’m charmed by the thought of ‘giving them away’ for some other child to bring back to life just by hearing some coins jingle in its pouch once again.

I could do that; give them away, let them go. Except maybe not the little soft-haired cowhide one that my daughter loved to rub up against her rosy cheeks, or the one that my father carried for years with the tiny travel labels faded off, and certainly not the last change purse my mother carried before she died, her perfume still lingering on the green leather and tiny golden shamrocks, reminding me of her love of change purses, now almost as obsolete and devalued as the pennies people once cherished.

Memories, all stuffed in little purses, like little bits of torn colored paper, a tarnish locket, or an ancient Avon lipstick sample; holding, holding, holding…for someone like my mother, with a story, a child’s heart and a reminiscent smile, and a few coins to spare, to come along and carry away in a new pair of loving hands.

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It’s All Going to Be Okay

Birthdays come and birthdays go.

This has been a quiet birthday for me, except for the opening of my eyes in gratefulness at meeting a new day. Some of my family had forgotten that it was my birthday, which isn’t odd given that we usually celebrate mine the following day along with my son’s birthday. My day, I’ve found, is more of a day of reflection. I have had a few memorable birthdays, though, that always come to mind on this reflective anniversary and are remarkably similar, though separated by 24 years or so.
One July when I was about six-years-old, we were at our family cabin nestled in the woods of mid-Michigan along the banks of the Tittabawassee River, and my Grandma Cowan was with us. That was unusual, as I recall. I think my mother must have needed her help that summer, for she normally didn’t take trips ‘up north’ with us.

My mother’s mother had been a ‘flapper’ during the roaring 20s, a totally modern girl living in Detroit in its heyday! She was the

My mom and her brother with my grandparents Ralph and Clara Cowan in the late 1940s

My mom and her brother with my grandparents Ralph and Clara Cowan in the late 1940s

first female insurance agent for The Royal Neighbors Insurance Company, and all her life had a keen business mind and was involved in helping the community. She married ‘old’ for those times, at thirty, to my grandfather, a tall strappin’ man who escaped the isolated simplicity of his Tennessee farm life to venture to the ‘Mecca of Prosperity,’ Detroit. After some work in the factories, my grandfather became a Detroit City police officer, affording his family security and a respectable middle-class life. My grandparents had two children, my mother and my Uncle Harvey, and lived that kind of ‘1940s ideal life’ one sees in those Spencer Tracey or Myrna Loy movies of the times, complete with stylish clothes, a strong work ethic, religious devotion, order and tradition, and even had their Polish Busha and Jaja living in the house with them. Family warmth and love were a given.

In the 1950s, when my parents married and brought forth eight children into the world, my grandmother was called upon to aid in the transportation of us kids and to give my mother all the support she could. She was a good grandma, always kind yet orderly, in control but generous. She would have us over to her stately but comfortable home in Detroit two-by-two, where we would enjoy outings to the Polish meat market and German bakery and get the kind of attention we didn’t get at home in house full of kids. On Sundays we’d trail behind my grandma and her elderly sister Maxine in their pearls and prim dresses as we walked to their church, Our Lady of Good Counsel, lit candles and learn to sit still. Back in her small but cozy kitchen ripe with the fresh tomato and green pepper smells of a summer garden, we’d enjoy fresh ham and cheese sandwiches on Jewish rye, Lorna Doone cookies, and then out to play in the then safe neighborhood and flower-lined alleys ways. She kept a bag of blocks and other toys in her front closet for us, and saved all her used cartons, dish soap bottles, and cereal boxes for us to play ‘store’ in the back yard. At bit of a gambler, she let us use her Po-Ke-No chips, which in this case were small multicolor tissue paper discs, as money or just for whatever we imagined. She kept round pink and white mints, sugared orange slices and mint leaves, and sometimes Circus Peanut candies in her china cabinet, and would give us a treat of them when she felt it was time. I can still see the cabinet filled with pink and green Depression glass, the spotless glass door slowly opened by my grandma, and us standing there patiently waiting for our reward for being good little guests.

My Grandma Cowan as I remember her in the 1960s.

My Grandma Cowan as I remember her in the 1960s.

Because my mother didn’t drive in those years when she most certainly needed to, my grandma would come to her rescue in her well-kept pink AMC Rambler, hat in place on her pin-curled hair, earrings on, boxy purse in hand, and she would get us around in her sturdy shoes and ironed shirtwaist dresses, far from the flapper flair of her 20s, but still classy. She was always willing to go the extra mile to help her only daughter, even to a musty old cabin. Something I completely understand as I now follow her example of devotion to my only daughter.

But it was during that summer in the early 1960s that my grandmother, Clara was her name, was staying with us at that musty old cabin where I was presented with a birthday gift that totally caught me off guard. It was a big box, for starters, and all lavishly wrapped in pink with a big pink bow! God, I was overcome with joy even before I opened it. In those days of dime-store gifts like a lace hanky, or a comb and brush set, maybe a paint-by-number kit and a multitude of handmade gifts from my other young siblings like a dog’s head carved out of an Ivory soap bar or a potholder made from a child’s weaving kit, that big pink box was a big deal!

When I opened it, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a beautiful baby doll swaddled in a soft pink blanket. I thought I was in heaven, for I loved dolls and rarely got one of my own. I remember holding that doll continuously after that point; for many years she was my dear child. I was so grateful to my sophisticated grandmother and happy as I watched the proud look on my mother’s face as well. She was apparently just as excited about my receiving such a special gift as I was.

It wasn’t until I was 38-years-old that I would receive another baby as a birthday gift. In labor all night on my birthday, my son was born just into the next day, saving him from the awkwardness of having to share his day with his mother for the rest of his life. Oh, and what a gift he was. Unexpected after the premature death of my father, an easy-going, mild-mannered child, who has grown into an honorable young man; he has always been my personal expression of celebration. As it is, I willingly gave up all the fanfare on my day for the next 19 years and will continue to do so, in order to celebrate my birthday baby!

Those two memories stand out above all others…including overtures of love from fumbling, good intentioned young boys, sun-burnt birthday picnics, drunken parties with girlfriends, and the traditional birthday cake and ice cream with loved ones. Perhaps, it’s because they all involve mothers, my mother, her mother, me as a mother, and our dear little babes in arms….real or, in the case of my six-year old summer gift, perceived real. Certainly, they are involved ‘real’ love.

I spent this birthday by myself, for the most part, with the memory of my mother. It was easy and natural. After all, she was the only loved one truly with me as I was ushered into this world through her labor, and she has been with me all along through the pain and struggles of my rebirths, as well. It would seem unnatural for that feeling to stop, simply because she is no longer physically present on earth.

Just a few months ago, I was struggling with despair. I had too many thoughts in my head and nowhere to take them, too much planning, work, and daily demands on my plate, and had reached a point of sleeplessness and exhaustion. I was trying to nap one afternoon, and somewhere between sleep and being awake, I heard my mother walk in the room calling out my childhood name, “Cindy,” as if she were trying to wake me up in a gentle fashion. It was so real. She was so real. I could smell her perfume as she slowly came around the end of my bed and sat down beside me. She was dressed in one of her nightgowns with an old-fashion ‘housecoat’ covering it much like the one I had admired for its sensibility during my last visit the summer before she died. She had gotten it from Sears or The Vermont Country Store, someplace where one could still get those sensible kinds of garments that allowed modest women to make breakfast, do a few chores, and even venture outside before actually getting dressed for the day. In soft feminine pink, it had little floral edged pockets and snaps as buttons. My always sassy mother giggled and told me it was kind of sexy in that way. I had to agree. When I was leaving that last summer day, I found the housecoat washed and lovingly folded on the top of my things in my luggage. She told me it was a going-away gift, as she proudly peeked around the corner to see my reaction, so much like her face when I receive the gift from my grandmother years ago.

That sleepless afternoon, I sat there looking at my mother’s pleasant face as she sat next to me, not young, not old and sad, just angelic-looking. I seemingly was awake, yet not in shock at seeing her or overly emotional, just completely given over to her presence. She said to me several times, quite simply in her familiar voice as she patted my leg, “Everything will be okay, Cindy. It’s all going to be okay.” When she walked away she gave me her signature girlish smile, reassuring yet joyful at what would come next, and when I came to the place where I thought I was indeed awake, I felt at peace, solid, reassured by my mother’s visit. Who else could do that? She was there at my first breath, and like today, she walked with me silently whispering that simple truth as a puttered around the house, during my exercising and getting ready for the day, and while I received lovely messages from friends. That was enough of a gift, and just as memorable as my baby doll and beautiful boy.

Birthdays are mostly lovely, but sometimes hard, especially as we get much older. There comes a point in life that you don’t need

Me and my mother in the 1980s.

Me and my mother in the 1980s.

a big pink box to feel special, you just need to feel loved. Today’s gift was a simple reminder, that “It’s all going to be okay.” Everyday gives us a chance for celebration; we just have to be willing to receive those small gifts as they come. There will be more babies to hold, boxes to wrap and open, grateful sunrises, memories to share and wisdom to pass along.

Like my mother and her mother, my task is to pass those gifts and love along to my children, washed and folded neatly or sugar-frosted as candy, and that proud reassuring peek around the corner for the courage to carry on through all the birthdays of their lives.

 

She’s Not Just Any Old Bird

 Birds of omen dark and foul, Night-crow, raven, bat, and owl,
Leave the sick man to his dream –All night long he heard your scream.

~Sir Walter Scott

Some 34 years ago, my young husband and I were driving through the Hiawatha National Forest in the upper peninsula of Michigan, in route to our new home in Sault Ste. Marie. We had been on the road for many hours, in fact days, having left frozen North Dakota in the middle of January, and had traveled across the snow covered northern highways of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and most of the U.P. before nearing our destination. We were glad to be back in the woods, where the giant pine boughs formed a welcoming arch way over the road we traveled. It was breath-taking, even in the dead of night. It was cozy in the warm cab of our U-haul truck, with our car being towed behind. Perhaps the rumble of the robust engine was lulling us to sleep or we were in that travelers weary-mode not looking for anything eventful to break the steady stream of road, when suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a snowy owl struck our windshield, it’s wing-span covering the glass with an incredible bang, causing our hearts to jump and bringing us to a sudden stop. In the glow from our headlights, our boots crunched through the snow as we looked around and found nothing to make us think the bird had not survived.  It was a perfect snow scene, a cathedral of ice; peaceful, pristine, almost haunting.  In the serenity of that ancient, snow cover woods, he and I stood in silence hand-in-hand, dwarf by the trees and darkness around us, like Hansel and Gretel, a little afraid and bewildered, yet respectful of that moment, almost spiritual, we shared together.  Needless to say, we found ourselves wide awake and more aware as we climb back up into the truck for the last leg of our trip. We didn’t know it then, but the move was to bring a sad ending to our marriage, and we were to travel away from the peninsula we shared a love for on to other places and people. I have often thought that snowy owl was trying to warn us, but we weren’t awake enough to see what was coming down the road. Or maybe, it was just a freak incident.

Now-a-days, there are owls around my house most of the fall and winter season. That’s not unusual, except that we live smack dab in the middle of a rather bland suburb in San Antonio, Texas. It’s definitely not the Hiawatha Forest, but we still seem to have our share of mockingbirds, cardinals, chick-a-dees, finches, cedar wax-wings, warblers and the like without much of an offering from our feeders.

The owls perch themselves in the giant live oaks that surround our house and can be seen on chimney tops and on electrical poles. I don’t care how many times I’ve seen or heard those majestic birds; each time is rather magical, awe inspiring, unless, of course, you don’t want to hear them.

Such was the case when my mother died in October of last year.

I had learned years ago about the mythology of owls, the bearers of bad news, harbingers of bad tidings, and symbols of death. Seen as good and wise (as the teacher symbol) and in other cases the sign of evil and doom; the owl has been widely written about in poetry, play, and prose. It’s not just any old bird.  From the Inuit people of Alaska, Scotland’s Cailleach (the dark hag), to Disney animation, the owl has remained a mystical symbol, wise and ominous, a bird with a message or lesson.

So, it was puzzling when the day before my mother died, that an owl was perched and hooting on a low branch in our yard. Close enough to make our dogs growl, hair-raised and at alert, while the patio furniture vibrated from the intensity of the owl’s call. As odd as that seemed, I didn’t know then what I would know the next day.

The next morning, as I readied for work, an owl sat on a branch just outside my bathroom window. Its hoot rattled the pane and caused me to stop in my rush to brush out my hair. I could see him there in the shadows, could he see me? How strange to be so close, I thought.

That same owl, it seems, wanted more from me. As I drove out of the driveway, with the light of dawn breaking on the day, the owl flew down from that branch near my second story window and escorted me down the street a spell, hovering in perfect symmetry just over the hood of my car, in direct line of my vision. I had to stop, for my eyes were so glued on this incredible bird, seemingly guiding me down the street, I couldn’t drive. It lifted from my car and graceful flapped its downy wings in flight back into the trees on the other side of the street, while I sat there dumb-founded, and feeling ‘blessed’ that I should behold such a close look at this beautiful bird. I wasn’t thinking at all about harbingers of bad news or lessons. In fact, I was taught by that young husband years ago, that to see a hawk or owl was ‘good medicine’ in the Native American world, and I embraced that belief.

By afternoon of that day, I had received news of my mother’s passing. My mother was an avid bird watcher and keeper, her Michigan yard covered in bird houses, some make-shift, some whimsically covered in bright colors. From hummingbird nectar drips to the piles of Peterson’s Guide to Backyard Birds, it was clear she felt connected to winged-things.

It wasn’t until I was on the plane, indeed sitting above the wing, that it hit me. Numb from the shock of her sudden death, a little angry that she left me without a word, a sign, or even a laugh as she always did at ending our weekly phone chats; I suddenly remembered the owls. Did they know something? Wasn’t it strange that they came so close to me and loudly seemed to be grabbing my attention? Later I learned that two of my sisters had unusually close visits from owls in their yards in that same time period, solidifying my conviction that the owls knew something, perhaps were even my mother in spirit. How appropriate that would be, that she not be a little song bird upon leaving this world, but one who hovers and guides, keeping a kind of watch over her children from the trees.

Since then, the owls have continued to be so plentiful around our yard, that at one point I screamed at them to go away! They were, indeed, making me nervous and frighten. I just couldn’t handle any more bad news, and now they seem to haunt me more than please me.

Until the owl with the funky hoot could be heard, I just wanted to cover my head with a pillow at night. One evening we heard this strange loud sound like a messed-up duck call or a party horn with something stuck in it. We watched for many evenings. As the days moved into dusk, my husband and I would stand in the grayness of the naked-limbed trees and follow the movement of the owls around ours and the neighbor’s yards, looking for the source of that odd hoot, not even sure if it was an owl.

Though we couldn’t tell which one it was, we concluded that it was one of two owls that seem to visit every evening, and continue, even now as I write, to call to each other, one with a regular powerful owl hoot, and one with a broken odd sounding squawk. My heart went out to the owl with the funky hoot, as I wondered what happened to its voice. Could it have been met unexpectedly by a windshield one fateful night, like that snowy owl so many years ago, only to survive with a damaged, scarred vocal cord? Does its handicap make it any less of an owl, less able to contribute to the messages of news, good or bad, or call and connect to others of her kind? Certainly my hoot has turned to a squawk at times and has hindered the way I communicate my needs, my heart’s desire. How hard that must be for an owl’s survival.

I have always loved birds of prey, particularly the owl. My mother would want me to continue to respect them, regardless of their appearance at her grief-filled passing. And certainly, that little owl with the funny hoot has put a new spin on how haunting they have become for me. I see her, the owl that is, half-asleep, party-hat cocked to one side, with a horn in its mouth….trying to be like the others, and she just can’t be normal, or noble, or foreboding, no matter how hard she tries.  I needed her to bring my back into embracing her kind. Teacher, wise-one, harbinger of doom, whatever, I’m so glad they continue to hang out and hoot at my house. They remind me, even now in a silly way, that my mother is always with me…in winged-things and in ear-shot, and she continues to make me laugh, to stay awake and present, and to remember the lessons I’ve learned along my many roads. Perhaps, that was my mother’s message as she took flight, “Stay awake, Cynthia. Don’t fall asleep at the wheel of your journey.” Good medicine, after all.