My purse is a weighty matter

Ken exits our downtown hardware store, meeting me on the sidewalk. He's just purchased three drill bits. We have more shopping to do. "Would you put these in your purse?" he asks.

"There's a limit to what this thing holds," I reply. Although much of what my purse contains is shared – checkbook, video rental card, car keys – Ken disavows any responsibility for the purse's contents or whereabouts, even as he expects free access to make deposits and withdrawals.

Sure enough, when I heft my handbag his way to demonstrate its weight, he deftly drops the drill bits inside. Yet on rare occasions when he agrees to hold it for me, he clasps it at arm's length, between thumb and forefinger, as if it were an unpredictable life form best handled with caution.

Masculine antipathy toward purses is nothing new. Shakespeare's Othello declared, "Who steals my purse steals trash." Granted, Othello was speaking metaphorically about the negligible value of money relative to reputation. (Desdemona doubtless toted the satchel in that family.)

Still, he made a prescient point about the modern purse's potential for becoming a miniature landfill. I, too, chafe at carrying a detritus-prone pouch everywhere I go. I recently met a female songwriter whose most requested composition was a mournful blues ballad titled, "Too Much Stuff in My Purse (I Got)." This has become my theme song.

I'll never forget (for Ken won't let me) a lazy Sunday afternoon years ago when I decided to purge the cavernous black bag I'd been shouldering all winter. As he watched, I unearthed, among other historical artifacts, 17 partial, dust-encrusted Lifesaver rolls in a single flavor: mint. "No wonder your purse is so heavy," my dumbfounded spouse declared helpfully.

Despite my ambivalence toward it, if my handbag were ever lost or purloined, I'd be utterly adrift. Like the ancient mariner's albatross, my purse – for better or worse – is an integral part of my identity, if not my anatomy.

Occasionally, as we're driving along, I'll experience what my friend Anne calls a "purse panic": the abrupt, compelling belief that I've left my handbag at the supermarket or the last rest stop. "Stop! I forgot my purse!" I'll screech. Ken brakes as I glance wildly about the confines of the car, only to spot my purse resting quietly on the back seat, as sweet a sight as that of a sleeping child.

Except for such times, I seldom look at my purse, much less inside it. Rather, I use a variant of Braille, locating items within it by feel – lip balm, tissue packet, ballpoint pen – and wear, or so I've been told, a look of deep concentration, eyes half closed, as I burrow and grope.

My friend Judy, who made peace with her purse long ago, notes that many women take advantage of airport delays or auto-repair waiting rooms to conduct full-blown purse inventories. Out comes the pocket calendar, calculator, sunglasses, cellphone, mending kit.... Once emptied, the vinyl vessel and its sundry slots, pouches, snaps, flaps, and patch pockets are opened wide, upended, and shaken until lint stops snowing. Then everything is put back.

At our house, the Changing of the Purse, just before Easter, is as much a rite of spring as washing windows or airing out bedding. I begin by inspecting several tattered, summery specimens slumped on my closet shelf. All seem disinclined to be called up for active duty. I don't blame them. Besides, spring calls for fresh starts. Maybe this is the year they'll finally invent the perfect handbag for me: capacious yet compact, junk-proof and feather-light, and so gender-neutral in styling that Ken might even help me carry it sometimes.

Hope springs as eternal as the contents of my purse. I announce plans to drive downtown in pursuit of the new. I invite Ken to go. Big surprise: He says no. "But could you return these drill bits for me?" he asks – and stuffs them in my purse.

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