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How Handbags Have Marked My Life Stages

06/26/2015 07:24 am ET | Updated Jun 26, 2016

Lately, I have been carrying a small cross-body bag inside my cavernous tote bag. "Why two purses?" my stalwart husband asked when he caught me doubling up. "You're not becoming a bag lady on me, are you?"

No, I'm not becoming a bag lady. But I am transitioning. My life stages have always been marked by what I carry on my arm and as I inch closer to retirement, this is still proving to be the case. Right now, I am on the cusp of my oldest child leaving for college, my youngest one is just months away from driving, and my husband spends most of his free time studying those "best places to retire" lists.

My handbag selection perfectly reflects where I am in life: Confused, trying on a few new hats while being reluctant to let go of the past which is still technically the present. Make sense?

Let me explain: As a 1960s hippie, I sported a long woven bag made by a tribesman from the mountains of Nepal. Who am I kidding? It was probably mass-produced in China like everything else in America at the time, but it still served my desire to let the world know I wanted to change it. I flirted with similar bags in designs from Central America, from Africa, from any Third World place on the planet. I wanted to end poverty, embrace equal rights for women and minorities, and make marijuana legal. It's been 50 years and I still want those things. But I remember that bag with great fondness. It lacked pockets, organizers or even a top closure. And when the knit strap broke from the weight of my possessions -- which it did with great regularity -- everything would scatter on my First World sidewalk and I'd have to get down on my hands and knees to shovel it all back into the satchel. The most memorable -- and ultimate -- bag malfunction came in one of the narrow alleyways in the Old City of Jerusalem. I left it there, which felt appropriate as a final resting place for my bag of lofty dreams and eternal optimism.

When I began my career as a journalist in the 1970s, I switched from a fragile hippie bag into something that allowed me to carry all the tools of my trade -- notebooks, pens, a camera, city council agendas, a rolodex and tons of coins in case I needed to stop at a pay phone to call a source. I also carried a pair of sneakers because my old crusty editor told me how reporters needed to traipse through mudslides, landfills, dicey 'hoods, and be able to chase after politicians who tried to evade their questions by darting out a statehouse window. Yes, that last really happened; this was New Jersey after all.

Being promoted into a management job meant more time in the office and less time in the muddy swamps, and my handbags adjusted accordingly. I carried a dainty little thing, just large enough to carry a tube of lipstick that I was wearing for the first time in my life. I now sported a real hair style, so a tiny comb went in it as well, along with a collapsible toothbrush because it turns out that my mother was right about brushing after every meal. With my new job and accompanying raise, I bought a house -- which meant I no longer had any wads of cash to take up space anyway. It was about this time that ATMs began to sprout on the landscape of my life. With one card in my tiny bag, I was good to go.

Becoming a wife meant that I became the family sherpa and gradually moved up the food chain of handbags until I reached the seriously large category -- the kind they sell in the luggage department. My bottomless pit of a bag was used to carry everything my husband and I needed, especially when we traveled: the thick travel guidebooks, extra eyeglass cases, car keys, house keys, sunscreen, rain ponchos, extra sweaters, and hardcover books to read on the plane.

And becoming a mom meant upsizing even more to a bag with room for snacks, sandwiches and water bottles. Throw in a stint as team mom and you would also be throwing in a spare set of shinguards for the player who inevitably forgot his and holding Joey's inhaler for him in case he needed it. For awhile, I toyed with the idea of a purse on wheels. Yes, my shoulders and back hurt that much.

Now, in the digital age, I carry my laptop and/or tablet with me wherever I go. My tote also has chargers for the devices, plus my big new smartphone. I still carry a reporter's notebook and pen just to jot something down, and yes, on most days there will be a change of footwear in there as well, plus a big scarf in case the air conditioning is turned up too high.

So, as my husband asked, what's up with the little cross-body bag within the greater tote? I'm trying it out, I told him. I sometimes leave the larger bag in the car and take just the smaller one with my wallet and car keys. I am testing out what it will feel like when no one needs me to hold their things or be the one prepared for every emergency and contingency. I'm getting used to the idea of not being able to produce a power bar or an orange on demand when someone is hungry. I am proving to myself that I really won't miss anything important if I don't compulsively check emails and texts on three devices at every red light. Or maybe what's really going on is that I'm just trying to use a new handbag. As Freud meant to say, sometimes a purse is just a purse.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

Define Your Style!