The Tale of a Bag

There was a time when a bag was just a bag. Just a vessel to carry stuff in, and nobody really paid much attention to it. Women would usually have two, a black one (or brown) in the winter, and a lighter one in the summer, white, or perhaps made of straw. And those two bags adapted gracefully to every outfit. No obnoxious designer labels dangling from the straps, no huge initials crawling all over it, no forbidding prices that made you feel guilty for owning it.

A bag was a bag, just had to be made of good leather and be functional. Cell phone pocket? I think not.

Voilà! I have one of those, over forty years old, owned by my mother, passed on to me. Vintage gold. When nobody knew what vintage meant.

Found it in my closet, while doing a bit of spring purging (are 16 bags too many?).

Brown and tan leather (okay, now I would define it ‘cognac’), intricately woven by hand by a master craftsman working in a dark little room, off a medieval alley in the heart of old Naples. Day after day, with his needles and thread and hides and fabric, weaving his life, all of his years, into beautiful, unique pocketbooks and gloves, molding the buttery calfskin into exquisite, high-fashion pieces, even though he, the humble pellaio, didn’t even know what high fashion meant.

All in a day’s work for him, producing lovely item after lovely item, waiting for the ladies to come in and bargain with him over the already reasonable prices he offered.   One of those ladies was my mother.   “Mi servono dei guanti ”, she would announce at some point. “Andiamo a Napoli”. Thus my father would get behind the wheel of the emerald-green Simca, and haul us all to the leather-workers neighborhood, a street in Naples dedicated to this ancient craft.

Sure I was bored, a young child with zero interest in fashion, but my mother walked briskly through the lively alleys, determined to find the little hidden shop where her favorite pellaio operated. While my father waited somewhat patiently in the car, because sure as hell he wasn’t going traipsing through ladies’ shops after my mother.

The heady smell of leather would wrap around my senses the moment we approached the shop.  Comforting, welcoming, luxurious.

My mother blissfully breathed in the scent of beautiful things, tried on several pairs of gloves, all so supple and yielding, a second skin that would soon become the only one.   Then she would examine the bags, all so different, since each one was made as its own entity, and perhaps (if it was needed) choose a new one to take home, soft and kind, ever-present companion of her busy days.

It’s a bit faded, this ancient purse of mine, the slow decades having marked their presence on the materials, but it’s still beautifully elegant in its simplicity, pregnant with history, a traveler, like me, from a land of sun and passions and fragile dreams, weary, but hopeful still of what’s to come.

I hold it close, accept its limitations (my Smartphone will be sitting on top of the wallet, rub against my keys), caress that leather and all its tales, pull up the still sturdy zipper and wear it with love and, yes, awe.

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