Grandma Wilder gave me this red patent leather purse when I started graduate school at Berkeley in 1992, and I carried it with me everywhere. Picture an undernourished grad student with bags under her eyes and unwashed hair, a peach jogging suit, a frayed L.L. Bean backpack -- and a crimson Kelly bag. I would step up to the barista at the Cafe Roma, order my mocha, and then shimmy my backpack off my shoulder and extricate the purse from all the course packets and notebooks inside. I would pay and then shuffle off to find a table with coffee and one hand and the purse strap dangling from the other.
It wasn't until the first annual Slavic Department camping trip, an overnight on Angel Island, that I realized the purse might seem out of character. I marched up the path from the ferry with my backpack full of overnight gear, a rented tent, and the purse. When we made it to the campsite at the top of the hill and collapsed at one of the picnic tables, another grad student, an older student with a shark-like academic demeanor and an enviable number of Fellowships, said, "That purse is funny in town, but out here, it's really funny."
Grandma Wilder bought this purse in Denmark in the 70s (there is a price tag in the pocket from Magasin), and I imagine her going out to lunch in Copenhagen with it slung on her arm. I loved her fashion sense, which was more expansive than anything I had encountered in the culture that raised me (seventies grunge calico, followed by plasticky eighties jogging shorts, followed by nineties eco-Kente cloth). Grandma had had a life that called for gloves, hats, evening wear, and what we would now call handbags.
I suppose that by schlepping her purse around Berkeley, I was being rebellious. At the same time I was growing into a rabid feminist, I wanted to prove to the world that the old-school feminine aesthetic was something to hold on to. Androgynous dress and sensible shoes were tools for letting the other side win -- we women had to take what we had, what our grandmothers had given us, and flaunt it.
Thank you, Grandma.