Great Amsterdam Traditions – Big Black Pocketbooks

Didn’t matter what ethnicity or Amsterdam neighborhood we came from, I’m guessing at least 90% of us had an older female relative who carried a big black pocketbook!

In my own family, it was my Dad’s oldest sister Onnie, who owned this nearly sacred accessory. Now when I say “big,” we’re talking Samsonite size and I don’t mean one of those modern day carry-on’s that fits in the overhead or underneath the seat in front of you. Nope, if my Aunt was still alive today and needed to fly somewhere on a plane, she’d not only be required to check her pocket book, she’d have to pay the overweight surcharge as well. Which would be better than emptying the thing at the security checkpoint. You know those gray bins they provide to empty your stuff into? If they had made my Aunt empty the contents of her purse, she’d have needed about a half dozen of those.

So what was in the darn thing you wonder? It would take me less time to tell you what wasn’t. Every dollar she owned that wasn’t in her Amsterdam Savings Bank Account (or Christmas Club) was in that purse, neatly stacked in the order of each bill’s denomination in one of those old Amsterdam Savings Bank money sleeves. And every bill in that sleeve looked like it had just come off the press at the US Mint, crisp, clean, green and as wrinkle free as a baby’s butt.

Another compartment of her satchel contained personal expense records. Every paid bill from last month, every due bill from the current month and a complete list of every dime she gave her husband, what he spent it on, what date he spent it and how much change he gave her back. There was also a list containing every gift and donation she made to every individual and any organization.

Another section contained important papers. These included the birth and death certificates of her parents, their parents and grandparents. One of the death certificates was so old it listed the cause of death as “The Evil Eye.” She had a copy of the mortgage on the family home, the warranty on the 42 year old Crosley Refrigerator still humming along in her kitchen, a list of birth dates and accomplishments for each of her nephews (Mine was always the longest by the way!)

Yet another flap in the purse held a collection of family photographs dating back to the invention of the very first camera. Some were actually of dead people lying in coffins, which leads me to imagine the kinds of shots they would have taken if there were cell phones with digital cameras back then.

Then there was the family jewel compartment. This flap had a zipper on it. My Aunt had a small collection of jewelry, none of which she ever wore. (My daughter was given her beautiful engagement ring) The only gold on my aunt was her wedding band, all the rest of the watches, bracelets, necklaces and rings including her Mom’s were carried in the black leather sack.

I could keep sharing the contents with you. We haven’t covered nail accessories, medical supplies, religious tools and keepsakes, hair brushes, writing utensils and the world’s largest collection of bobby pins but it was all in my Aunt’s big black pocketbook.

So you can understand why whenever she went anywhere, the bag went with her. At home, it was kept in the end cabinet of the dining room buffet. Both the latches of the pocket book and the buffet door made clicks that when opened were so freaking loud and distinctive, my Aunt could have been in the backyard garden watering the tomatoes with a train hurtling through Amsterdam just 500 feet away on the old tracks that used border West Main St and she’d still scream, “Who just opened the door on the buffet?”

If she came to the house of one of her nephews for a birthday party or holiday, she’d walk in the front door, we’d give her a kiss, take her coat and then she’d peer around to see who was there. If it was just her nephews, she’d give you the black pocketbook and tell you to “put it someplace safe.” If God forbid you had invited an outsider to the gathering, the Pocketbook remained with her. Fortunately the damn thing was big enough to double as an ottoman in such cases.

Me and my brothers and cousin received many wonderful gifts from that amazing valise. My Aunt was an extremely generous Aunt who would often tell anyone who would listen that “her nephews were her life.” Holidays, birthdays, good report cards, religious milestones, college books, clothes for the kids etc. all meant hearing Aunt Onnie say “Jim! Go get me my pocketbook!”

And then she died,

Twenty five years later me and my brother Jerry were in her old house, emptying it of stuff that had simply been left there over the years and we came across Aunt Onnie’s big black pocketbook. We looked at each other and smiled and opened it up not knowing what to expect. Her husband had emptied most of its content but we did find pictures of all of her nephews and our children and a wonderful letter my brother Matt had written to her on our behalf one long ago Christmas. It explained how much we loved her and how much we had appreciated all of the wonderful things she had done for us during her lifetime. It was still in the original envelope but you could tell unlike the dollar bills she used to carry those old Amsterdam Savings Bank sleeves, she had handled this piece of paper several times.

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