Friday, May 11, 2007

Handbags and Ebay

Those of you who know my mother and sister will probably assume from the title that this post is about our family’s dual obsession with handbags and shopping (for handbags) on Ebay. You would be wrong. This post is about handbags and Ebay as forms of communication. Specifically as a form of communication between families of women.

When I was a little kid I had a whole clatch of great-aunts on my father’s side. My grandfather’s sisters were known as Della-Dot-Sis-and-Neva. It was said all in one word like that, mainly because they moved around all in a flock like that. They were sweet cheek-pinching old ladies when I knew them, but according to family lore, they had long interesting lives for decades before I came along. (I’ll tell you another day about the time Della was kidnapped by Machine Gun Kelly.) Anyway, when I was little I couldn’t tell the great aunts apart. They were always just this gang of old ladies who hung out together. Neva had red hair (as a small child I famously called her ‘the one with the orange hair’ – a comment that never failed to amuse my grandparents, no matter how often they repeated it). Other than that one identifying feature, the great aunts were a unit of four old ladies who always seemed to have a good time at the family parties, and sometimes hung out with my grandmother and my aunts.

I remember a few summer afternoons when I was pretty small, at my grandparents’ house. The men were away somewhere, and I was in the living room with all the old ladies – my grandmother, my aunt Frances, and Della-Dot-Sis-and-Neva. Frances was doing people’s hair – she would roll and set short little old-lady curls on one head after another, and then park that old lady under one of those big hair dryers that sat on the kitchen table and looked like a giant aqua ice cream scoop. It was always loud under there so the old lady would either read a magazine (one of the great aunts) or fidget impatiently and constantly stick her head out from under the dryer yelling “What’d you say?!” (my grandmother, whose hair took twice as long to dry).

The reason she hated being under that loud dryer was because the great aunts were gossiping and she was missing it all. The way you could tell they were gossiping is that they had exchanged handbags. No one had said, “Hey, pass me your handbag.” No. It was done completely without any overt discussion. One sister would reach for another’s purse, open it up and just start pawing through it. The conversation that followed was sometimes related to what was in the bag, to what was NOT in the bag, or maybe to what was being found/not found in the bag in the lap next to her. It was this whole weird sister-communication where they just rummaged through each other’s handbags without permission, and discussed what they found there or not, as their heart’s desired. “Oo, nice recipe, I do something like it but with a little more mayonnaise” or “Did you go to that wedding? Weren’t the flowers awful? I know Sue held her breath until it was finished” or “Hey, that’s my lipstick!”

It wasn’t until years later, when my mom and I were reminiscing about those old ladies and we discussed that handbag exchange during Old Lady Hour at my grandmother’s, that I realized there was anything weird about it. Make no mistake – as a grown-up person with her own handbag, I think it’s weird. Sweet. But weird. I love my family, and we’re close, but I’m not sure a completely unannounced and shameless rummage through my handbag would be all that kosher with me. (Sorry, Mom and Kels. I know you’re all devastated now.) But as a kid it was just normal. I didn’t question it at all.

What’s even funnier though is that Mom and my sister and I have developed our own weird language in a parallel way: we send each other Ebay listings all the time. Not just listings of stuff we know the other person might find interesting, but stuff that reminds us of our past, or stuff with wildly misspelled headlines, or horrible pictures, or stuff for sale that was photographed next to the seller’s pet hamster, you know, for a size scale. When we first started doing this, we’d often include a little note: Thought you’d be interested, or Isn’t this awful?, or Love the hamster. After all, Ebay gives you a little space for just such a note whenever you mail a listing to someone. But now we usually don’t do that. In the exact same way that a great-aunt would just pick up someone else’s handbag and start rummaging through it, we send each other Ebay auction listings without any narration at all. It’s up to the person who gets the message to open up the auction and peruse the headline/description/photo for the thing that caught her mother/daughter/sister’s eye in the first place. Decoding it is about half of the point – you’re one of three who speaks the language so you’ll be able to figure it out. And most of the time, we DO figure it out.

Isn’t that weird? I think it’s weird. And sweet. It’s just another way that we communicate with each other: handbags or Ebay listings. The language of love.


Big Kitty Fun said...

I think there is a novel in here somewhere called Della-Dot-Sis-and-Neva. My mother had a pack of aunts on her dad's side too. I met 8 or 9 of them at some point. Her mother had sisters, and thru the filter of my mother and her dad, I have never successfully sorted out how many old ladies there were, and which ones belonged to whom. There is definitely a Dot, and a Floy who looked like her son the linebacker in a dress. And, great aunt Daisy, who was shaped like Jabba the Hut and talked like Prissy from GWTW.


holymama said...

oh! i almost sent you one today, just because it was a dress and the description read:

"this dress will give you neece and handiness."


LaLa said...

I'm torn between Aunt Floy the linebacker in drag and between the utter mystery of 'neece and handiness'. I think my brain just stalled.