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Digging Through the Car and Discovering Her Mother's Purse

November 01, 2000|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was the gum that made me realize my car had become a portal to the past. A stack of Trident, spilled onto the floor of my car, some of the pieces a bit smashed, some partly undressed, studded with lint and hair and those generic brown crumbs that could be anything. Graham crackers. Whole-wheat cheese crackers. Dead leaves. Leaning over, I dragged my hand across the floor, raking up gum, a few pennies, two pen caps, tissue shreds, a button, a toy train and a bobby pin. Looking at the familiar mess in my hands, I realized somehow my car had turned into a purse, and not just any purse . . . my mother's purse.

I spent hours as a child digging through my mother's purse, pulling out her wallet, her credit-card holder, clattering past the car keys, the shiny lipstick tubes and compacts, the black oblong of Chanel, burrowing under the crumpled baggy full of tissue, the wrapped packages of crackers, the occasional Mary Jane toffee, pulling all of these items out, the comb, the sunglasses, and piling them on my parents' bed, like a paleontologist with a new cache of bones. Then I would sift through the sediment, the unidentifiable purse mulch, fishing out the petrified sticks of gum, the bobby pins, the loose change, the worn-away aspirin tablets.

There was something endlessly fascinating about this excavation, a search perhaps for the secret to adulthood, to womanhood. It was comforting to catalog things that were my mother's, to breathe in the fragrance of the leather bag. With its top notes of Chanel and cinnamon; the tang of stray coins; and the papery perfume of tissues, it was a miasma of mom-ness, an olfactory beacon, instantly familiar.

So how surprising is it that I keep an empty but still fragrant bottle of Chanel No. 5 in my glove compartment, that I hand back to my hungry son the same cheese crackers my mom handed back to me? That there is lipstick in my car, though I never wear it? Tissues that I never use? And cinnamon gum on my floor?

In Los Angeles, there is a tendency to treat our automobiles as glorified pocketbooks/gym bags, carrying in them the things the denizens of other cities might stick in a backpack or tote. Water and street maps, extra shoes and sweaters, cosmetics and workout clothes, dog biscuits and baby wipes--the contents of our cars, like the interiors of our medicine cabinets or refrigerators, give us away every time.

There are the neat-freak interiors, with their pristine floor mats, aromatherapy air fresheners and antibacterial wipes; the on-the-job interiors, with the note pad and pen beside the car phone beside the pager beside the front-section of three papers and Variety; there are kids-on-board variations, and dogs-on-board, piling seats and floors with toys and blankets and towels and snacks and the crumbly grit of hard use; tennis rackets and golf balls and sweat-stained weightlifter belts speak volumes, especially when paired with empty cigarette packs and fast-food detritus shoved under the seat. Books and magazines, Game Boys and portable CD players, Palm Pilots and Filofax, all somehow creep out of the briefcase onto the front seat, or the floor with the gum and the Kleenex.

All of which may be the real reason so many of us obstinately refuse to use public transit, or even carpool. Our cars are filled with our stuff, and we like being around our stuff. It makes us feel safe. It makes us feel special. Like coming home to our dogs at the end of the day. Or digging through mom's purse.

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