MY MOTHER’S HANDBAG

There it sprawled, like a malevolent old cat. Ragged, the 70’s designer fluff clumped into mucky grey blobs. Ma always called it by some fancy French name, but I simply dubbed it “the monster”.

It lived up to its name by consuming everything she tucked into its cavernous maw. I don’t think I ever saw anything escape from it. Not even once. Thankfully, my sister and I were not allowed to touch its holiness, and for that we were grateful.

I glanced over to where Ma lay, still and silent, her liver-spotted hands no longer clutching at the faded candlewick bedspread. For a moment I wondered if I should call the nurse to tell her that Ma was gone, but something told me to wait.

Hands shaking, I reached out for the bag at the end of the bed. My fingers brushed the blobs and recoiled from their greasy greyness. My heart pounded and I could see spots dancing at the edge of my vision. I held my breath for a moment, and then I lifted the ugly tortoiseshell handles.

The bag flopped off the edge of the bed and I took it on my lap. I could see the brown of my trousers looking fresh against the ugly old bag. My fingers fumbled at the scratched gilt clasp and with a dull click the bag opened.

A smell of old age, used tissues, ancient face powder, and copper coins wafted up my nose, triggering a thousand memories of childhood.

I reached down into the dimness and my fingers brushed against the old leather wallet that mother favoured. It was an oddity, a contrast to every other ladylike thing she owned. A man’s ostrich-skin wallet. One Christmas she had given me an identical wallet, saying how I was now no longer a boy and needed a man’s things about me. I lost it as quickly as I could. Somehow, in my young mind, it seemed wrong that I owned something the same as hers.

I tugged at the fastening and the wallet fell open. Faded slips from the ATM poked out of one sleeve. Two wrinkled twenty-rand notes lurked in the banknotes flap. Her ID book was wedged tightly to one side. I flipped open the coins pocket and found ma’s “tip” money — the largesse she dished out to car-guards and supermarket packers. I always hated how she handed them the money… as if she was distributing vast sums of wealth and they should bow and scrape their eternal thanks.

I turned the wallet over, pondering its miserly contents. Suddenly, it slipped from my fingers and fell to the floor. I bent over and picked it up, then noticed a white flash as a corner caught the sunlight filtering through the dusty net curtains. Something was tucked into the broken seam at the edge of the wallet.

Puzzled, I tugged at the whiteness and it slid partway out and then got stuck. I recognised it as a smaller version of an old sepia photograph Ma had on top of the piano at home. My sister’s white shoes were visible and I knew I would see Ma’s neatly crossed ankles in her Sunday-best court shoes. Stern-faced, I would be seated on Ma’s lap, my white sailor suit announcing to the world that I was Ma’s best baby boy.

I didn’t stop to think; I just pulled at the photograph. It came out suddenly and I felt the blood drain from my face. Who was that? Who was the man standing behind Ma smiling so cheerfully? He wasn’t in our picture on the piano at home. My puzzled brain vaguely registered that this picture had a background, while the one at home was artfully cut out and pasted on wheat-patterned paper.

I stared at the man, trying to figure out who he was. There could only be one conclusion, but I was getting there very slowly. My father.

But Ma had always said she had no photos of him; that he’d been so camera shy he refused to pose for any. And how sad it had been that he’d died in the fire that gutted half of our house. Only some of our possessions had remained after that fire. Ma always said he had died trying to save the house, and I remember how bitter she’d become, ranting on about how he’d left us all to fend for ourselves. It seemed as if she’d almost hated him and his memory.

I peered at the man, trying to see an image or reflection of myself. He looked familiar, and I could see a trace of my sister’s eyes, so piercing and sincere. The monotone of the picture didn’t disguise the fact that he had thick wavy dark hair, much like mine, and like me, he seemed rather tall and angular.

I jumped as the door behind me opened, and a nurse’s aide came in. “Ag, meneer! Shame, man. You should have called us! Now look at you, sitting all alone like this with no shoulder to cry on. Ag shame, meneer! I’ll just go call the matron quickly.” She patted my mother’s hand on the covers and then peered at the photo I held in my hand. “Ooh, meneer, I didn’t know he was your father. You must be so proud! A great man, a truly great man. He’s done so much for this country. Yes, yes, very proud…” And she bustled out as the door closed behind her once more.

I turned the picture over. On the back, a stranger’s faded handwriting and the words “Our Family, Lusaka 1962”. Underneath, the same handwriting, but more hastily penned, “Come back to me, my love.”

*****

Copyright © October 2003 FIONA TIPPING.

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