Although I’ve written about her obsession with knitting underwear for our dolls, I don’t think I’ve ever written about my Grandma Ida’s collection of handbags and matching hats. I’ll do this now.
The hats were not an extravagant fancy, for all Ida’s purchases came from ‘thrift shops’; she was probably the founding mother of all things vintage before it was even a thing. I didn’t realise as a child, but I think her muse must have been Jacqueline Kennedy/Onassis for she owned an impressive hoard of pill box hats. I thought these hats were particularly wonderful because they made her look like Bertie Bassett’s colourful wife.
G’ma Ida didn’t like her hair getting in her eyes, and being an avid gardener, you would often see her digging up her herbaceous border wearing one of these bright pink millinery creations – she held them in place with a couple of kirby grips and a precautionary shower cap if it looked like rain. She would have laughed in the face of a fascinator.
The best thing about these thrift shop hats was that Ida ensured they each had a matching handbag, and G’ma stored them away in her many wardrobes. Every shelf or compartment would house a matched hat and handbag – each stored with a lavender bag and perhaps a small tablet of lily of the valley soap wrapped in tissue paper. Marie Kondo wouldn’t have had a look in. Go Ida.
Actually Ida went long ago, and I’m ashamed to say that her hat collection ended up in my neice and nephew’s dressing up box. Ida would have been horrified to know that the hats became estranged from their significant others.
An image of one handbag survives though. A favourite childhood photo is of my two sisters and I, all in matching shifts and blouses (thanks mum). My middle sister, always the stylish one, has managed to customise her ensemble by borrowing one of Ida’s handbags for the photo. She looks suitably smug, handbag slung nonchalantly over one arm. My other sister and I just grimace at the camera, realising we’ve been upstaged. It is even worse for me – I know I will inherit both my older sisters’ tunics. I will be wearing this fashion for years. No wonder I’m not smiling in the photo.
Fortunately I’ve now stopped wearing those shifts and Ida’s handbag legacy lives on in my sister. She tells her husband that her eclectic collection are all vintage and inexpensive, but I’m sure he knows otherwise, and like us, takes pride in both the style she cuts and the Mary Poppins contents of these bags.
Some of these bags are the size of a suitcase but that is part of their magic, for you never know what delight sis is going to pull out from the reticule she arrives with. If you’re crying, she has hankies; if you’re bored she has a novel or two stashed away; if you feel light-headed, she’s likely to have a cereal bar and some smelling salts. Her handbags – like sis – are the gift that keeps on giving.
Perhaps there is an even deeper Ida legacy in sis than I’ve acknowledged. This summer, knowing I needed rainbows and unicorns, she took me to a particular stall at a particular Italian market, and when I found a multi-coloured handbag big enough to accommodate both my teaching world and wounded pride, being the true handbag connoisseur she is, she sniffed the leather, asked the price in Italian and then made me walk away – although every bone in my body wanted that bag. Only after a couple of strong espressos did she allow me to return to the stall holder, who by then was prepared to drop his price. I’m her handbag disciple in more ways than one and that carry- all hasn’t left my side since – much like my sis.
If we’re using handbags as metaphors (me? surely not) then my handbags are fall of crumpled receipts, old lipsticks and broken packets of Xtra strong mints, whereas my sister’s are fragrant and organised. My father always said that a true gentleman never looks inside a lady’s handbag. No gentleman would want to go near one of mine, let alone rummage. For my sister, she need feel no shame.
In these dragonfly years I’ve come to realise why my sister is not a fan of a clutch, purse or bum bag. It’s not vanity, it is because she’s a walking antidote to anything life throws at her band of brothers and she’s likely to be carrying something we need in that bag; she feels it is her responsibility to be the bag carrier. I honestly believe that if I broke a leg, she would open up her bag and tell me to hop in, saying ‘I’ll carry you’.
I’d never dare buy my sister a handbag – I’m not nearly stylish enough – but I have taken a purse or two out of her bag (figuratively, people!) and I’m sporting much bigger handbags these days. I’m the youngest sister (she still insists on telling everyone that I’m older, let me set that record straight) but she needs to know that I’m no lightweight. I know she’s tired so I’ve stocked up on a whole kit bag of goodies to be at her disposal whenever she needs them. She can give her shoulders/arms a rest now if she wants. She is our royalty – her handbags should just be for show and I can take my turn as her lady in waiting, rather than playing the princess all the time. I can do the hard graft of shouldering the stash of contents and ensuring my purse actually gets used first for once.
Bringing us right up to date, I have just purchased a new handbag from a local jumble sale. It’s bright pink and has a built-in sleeping bag and pillow as well as a zipped pochet for my lady’s sunglasses. It’s not as stylish as I’d ideally like but I’ve already found a couple of cough sweets, a Wriggly’s Juicy Fruit and an old pair of reading glasses in one of the side pockets so I think it has potential. I think Ida would approve. Sis certainly will. Now, let me take your glad bags, madam?