Ooh look, there’s a Vera Bradley bag on the rack – what a great paisley. Pretty useful size, too.
But I don’t need any more bags, and I’m not exactly a Vera Bradley woman am I? I mean there are Le Sportsac women and there are Vera Bradley women and I was always more Sportsac but considered Vera bags a possibility. They’re not exactly old enough to make me nostalgic and I’m not young enough to wear one in the way I see women born in the eighties, nineties or this century look cute in Christmas sweaters and mom jeans. But they’re cheerful and practical.
“Taking Care Of Business” is chugging away through the thrift store speakers (where are the speakers in thrift stores? I mean, do you ever actually see where the music is coming from, or is classic rock and the sounds of the sixties just in the ether? Maybe it issues forth from the pockets of overcoats, Wranglers and nylon track suit jackets). I put down the Vera Bradley bag and—what’s this, another Vera Bradley bag? Different size, different shape. In excellent condition! And then I see—another, and another; and another. Seven on one rack, another two here and there.
An older man, masked up, all in beige, enters the handbag area and starts reaching towards the same rack and I practically snarl at him. Not from fear of coronavirus, although he definitely should be more careful, but because I don’t want him getting any ideas about these bags until I’ve decided whether I want one. That is law of the land in thrift stores so back off, buster. Wait your turn. Pandemic rules dicate six feet apart but the tenets of civil thrift shopping decree a force field approximately four feet square around a customer’s object of desire, like a privacy shield, a confessional—them’s the rules dude. A sharp elbow to the ribs is not unheard of if someone impinges but I wouldn’t go so far as to touch anyone right now. Anyways, he’s moved on and I’m left on my own to sort out my feelings about these Vera bags.
But enough about me for a minute. It dawns on me this is someone’s collection. The bags aren’t new, but gently used. What happened to the owner of these bags? A complete purge, as many people of a certain age seem to be attempting, especially with all the pandemic time on our hands? A woman (most likely) saying “you know what, I haven’t used these bags in years…it’s time to let them go.” But that’s not where my mind goes. My first thought is: somebody died.
That’s where my head is these days, and I wonder will it stay here as long as I’m still breathing? Is there a line and have I crossed it, when I see everything in terms of mortality— not necessarily my own but somebody’s? We’ve all been closer to death this year and I’ve touched it, held its hand in the case of David Olney or stopped it happening, driving Eric to the emergency room, running towards a security guard and shouting “my husband’s having a heart attack!”
Nearly every day has brought news of someone I knew or admired dying. Friends losing loved ones. Then last week it was my stepmother Lois. One minute she was coming home from the hospital post-heart attack, doing pretty well. The next she was back in, positive for Covid, having trouble breathing. It was hard to believe she wouldn’t make it and recover—she was that strong and tough and healthy but she was 93, and suddenly it started to feel like she wouldn’t get better.
I talked to her on the phone one last time and when I hung up it hit me how much I loved her. I don’t think I’d ever realized it. Maybe that’s the job of being a stepmother, you’re not the main event, you do your best to stay supportive and keep out of the way unless needed. She was an ace at all of that and made our lives so much better by making a life with my dad. And she always sounded so happy to hear from me, and interested in what we were up to and I took it for granted. And maybe she understood that too.
I frantically searched for a rapid Covid test so I could go to Pittsburgh for her very small funeral and to support my dad. There was not a test to be found upstate, and then I remembered I’d received an email from City Winery in Manhattan saying “buy a case of wine and get a FREE RAPID COVID TEST” and I said Fuck it, I drink wine, and NYC is almost on the way to Pittsburgh and I stopped in at their fancy new complex just off the West Side Highway at the appointed time, got a nasal swab in a room full of wine barrels, tested negative, picked up my wine which minus the cost of a Covid test came to about twelve dollars a bottle. I loaded up the trunk of my car feeling like a bit of a chump but appreciating the absurdity and comic relief. If only I’d booked myself a City Winery gig while I was waiting the fifteen minutes for my test results, it would’ve been a Covid hat trick.
Two days in an empty hotel, distanced condolences (and some bottles of wine) exchanged with my brothers and sister in law and niece…sharing in my father’s grief. He’d been quarantined for two weeks after Lois tested positive and had at last been allowed in to see the woman he’d married back when they were both seventy-seven. They’d been blissfully happy with each other until old age made them edgy but in the end they loved each other. My dad said. “This is it. I’m not getting married again.” I started to chuckle and then I saw the pain. It was like looking at myself down the barrel of a gun. No matter what age you are, love is love and loss is as real if you’re fifteen or fifty or fifty-three plus forty.
When I was getting ready to leave, my father asked me to take Lois’ purse. It was a chic Calvin Klein crossbody. “It’s a nice purse,” he said. Of course I’ll take it, I told him. I was glad I hadn’t take any of the Vera bags at the thrift store. I don’t need any more bags. But I’ll take good care of the one that belonged to my stepmother.