Lisa Taddeo comes to terms with her mom’s beloved, little-used bags
My mother was born in Italy, quite tremendously poor, to a family with one nonproverbial pot to piss in. But she was beautiful, and when she met my father, an American in medical school in Bologna—not poor but certainly foraging—they struck the kind of love that lays waste to language barriers. Or perhaps it was the surprise pregnancy that laid waste to language barriers. Either way, they were married, gaily though without audience, a few months before my brother was born.
Once they’d moved to the States and my father had established himself as a physician, he bought my mother jewelry and shoes and dresses she’d only known in films. Gucci and Céline and Saint Laurent when it was still Yves. But it was replica handbags that tickled her fancy the most. The huge, terrific kind. As a girl, I didn’t understand. It was dresses that transformed the body, that silkened the hip and submarined into the décolletage. Bags were utilitarian. They turned sooty inside with tobacco snowflakes from a soft pack of Marlboro Reds and lipstick smears of Revlon claret. (My mother loved expensive clothes and bags but could never wrap her Depression-era head around expensive makeup.)
But because my mother loved her replica bags, the bags became my objets de désir. Lined up on the top shelf of her closet in their cream protective bags, they were her soldier-lovers, her army of worth. You knew the better ones because they were double-bagged: the navy-blue felty Moschino that proclaimed it was SOFT! on the front in first-rate golden script; the horse-colored Trussardi clutch of fine-grain leather so smooth and clean, its greyhound-on-a-spike logo emblazoned across the front like a better life; but mostly and forever, the bright green suede Fendi with the taupe trim. Large and square and extraterrestrially green, Irish green, it shined like noblesse, like money, like gall.
She did not wear any of these bags to the market or the mall or even to good dinners. For all such pedestrian outings, she would carry something large and cheap and darkly lined. Though the good replica bags made only occasional appearances, the Fendi replica came out the rarest—the annual doctor’s ball, a wedding with people who would know.
That bag taught me that some things are holy, because where you came from had a floor made of dirt and Tiny Tim servings of meat even on Christmas. When my husband buys a new pair of boxers and tries to wear them the same day, I shudder like a moth. I look at him like he’s a spendthrift. Are you crazy? I ask. Those are new. The fake bag taught me to have respect for the benevolent forces that save us from poverty, for pots to piss in becoming Le Creusets to roast in. It taught me that there are golden icons that need to be cherished. Cherishing them is, in fact, a form of humility. It’s the same seed that has my brother and me rolling up toothpastes at other people’s houses. Waste not, want not.
I save my finest things for days that may never come. But of course I only see it that way when I’m forced to. Left to my own devices, I’d let them be worshiped like statues at the tops of closets for eternity.
My wedding day. She would have worn the Fendi outlet then, might have planned an outfit around it. But she died before she even met my husband. Now the fake bags are mine, and so are the jewelry and the clothes. So is the mitigation of use. Standing in my closet in the days prior, I gently removed the cheap Fendi’s protective bags, one after the other. I thought, Surely there will be another, more important time…perhaps my daughter’s wedding?
My husband, who knows my mother through me, said, “I think you should wear it, not even to the wedding, but to one of the events before it.” I looked at him like he was wearing a tuxedo at the swimming hole. “You know,” he said, “I’ve seen you look at me when I have greasy fingers, coming near the bag—you might kill me. To you, that replica bag is your mother. And that’s why you don’t want to wear it, spoil it. Just as to her it was the symbol of what she didn’t think she deserved. You have to change that script. The time is now.”
Dirt Poor and Filthy Rich—either extreme is silty, untenable. The middle is always the way to ride, the most frank and lasting. That night I held the bag like a child, brought the creamy suede to my cheek, and let the lot of it move across me like there was no tomorrow.