The Whole World in My Hands

My large handbag has always been a symbol of who and where I was in my life—until my back gave out

"You have a herniated disk, between your L4 and L5," said my neurosurgeon, a tall, blond, rugged Texan in cowboy boots, as he studied my MRI pointing to the two lowest vertebrae on my spine—the reason for the constant ache in my lower back and crippling pain that seared through my left leg.

He reached for the large black leather purse with shiny buckles sitting next to me and lifted it like he was doing arm curls. "What on earth do you keep in here?" he asked, his eyes wide. My face burned.

"Just the essentials," I whispered.

"We're trying to keep you from having surgery," said the doctor. "You need to carry a lighter handbag. Something small. Only carry what you really need."

But I need everything, I thought, staring at the beautiful leather purse filled with the important minutia of my life. I had learned from the best: my mother.

She always carried a huge beige leather handbag. We used to joke that if it fell on someone's foot, they'd break a toe. So, I was careful never to let it slip, gripping its thick leather strap tightly between my 9-year-old fingers, as I paraded around the house pretending to be her—a beautiful, full-grown woman who held the whole world in her hands.

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Her shoulder-slung treasure trove was filled with everything we needed and more: money, snacks, cigarettes, makeup, pens and paper. If I dug deep enough in its crevices, I could always find coins and gum. Her handbag confirmed the notion that our mom was always prepared for anything. And that always made me feel safe.

I imagined that women with large bags were sexy, capable, independent and in control. Not that my mom's life was particularly exciting, but when 9, her life seemed infinitely more thrilling than mine. I also assumed (wrongly) that women who carried small handbags, like my grandmothers and great aunts, were just sweet, old, frumpy ladies who led quiet lives of desperation. So, it's not a surprise that my first handbag in high school was large enough to carry my schoolbooks, my wallet and an endless array of Bonnie Bell Lip Smackers.

As the years passed, my purses changed, but they were always large enough to carry what I needed and then some. In my 20s, they were large, holding my Filofax and a myriad of important papers as a young newbie real estate agent. My 30s consisted mostly of diaper bags large enough to feed, clothe and diaper a small village.

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My 40s were mostly large trendy-looking handbags that held PTA and school volunteer stuff, my kids' sports schedules and, of course, endless snacks. My 50s, as a new empty-nester, were finally all about me again. My large bag showed the world that I was a writer, a graduate student, a woman who was still going places and had a lot of living left to do. I schlepped that large bag on planes and to conferences. It was a symbol of who and where I was in my life.

Without my large purse, I felt naked and vulnerable. There's comfort in knowing I have the world at my fingertips. The feeling of a large leather bag pressed against my body felt like a security blanket. I could hide behind it if I wanted to camouflage a few pounds, or steel myself behind it and wear it like a piece of armor, depending on the mood or situation.

To make matters worse, in addition to a weekly physical therapy regimen, the good doctor also advised me to stop wearing high heels, since they were throwing off my back. I felt like I was falling apart. This was not how I wanted my 50s to begin, feeling like I had to, yet again, give up something from my youth.

There was a growing list of things I could no longer enjoy due to injuries and general wear and tear. Tennis, running and yoga were things of the past. Sweet memories of bouncing on trampolines in my teens or in bouncy-houses with my kids are of another lifetime. Slower and steadier is how I now move.

Instead of crying over a beautiful collection of heavy well-constructed handbags I had to let go, I lovingly packed them up to give to my 24-year-old daughter. She has a strong back. She, in turn, went shopping with me to find the perfect bag to help me get my handbag mojo back. That's when I saw her: a large navy and chocolate brown canvas tote bag with a leathery finish that felt as heavy as a bag of cotton balls. I had found nirvana. All I had to do was pare down my "essentials," which basically meant I had to revaluate my entire life.

It really wasn't as difficult as I'd imagined. In fact, it forced me to become more organized and choose what I truly needed, not just what made me feel good.

I decided I needed a smaller wallet and that I didn't need to carry every receipt since the 1980s. I now rarely carry coins, since I mostly use credit cards, even for parking meters. I've narrowed down my on-the-go beauty essentials to just one pinky-nude lipstick. My bag is light and I feel free.

Like me, my mom has had to scale down her purse size too. At 84, she manages to keep everything she needs in a neat little handbag, minus the cigarettes she gave up a decade ago. To me, she doesn't look old or frumpy. We're just a couple of gals who are smart enough to know it's not the bag that makes the woman.

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