Carpe Diem: Lessons from a grande dames’s purse
By Susan Caba
The Resale Evangelista
Ceci Lowenhaupt wore her elegance like a Chanel suit. Even in old age, even when her memory was caught in loops of the past, her silvery hair was always coiffed, her lipstick immaculate, her fitted jacket embellished with a silver brooch.
“Hello, dear,” she would drawl when she greeted me—even in her final years, when I’m quite sure she no longer remembered my name or even how she knew me. She had the husky voice of a former smoker.
Ceci, in another era, would have been recognized as a grande dame. She liked her vodka martinis, presided over the St. Louis Print Market’s annual art sale, and insisted on a particular table in her favorite restaurant—sometimes even when it was already occupied.
I became acquainted through her daughter and my friend Alice, when Ceci was in her 80s. She held tickets to the St. Louis symphony, but needed a companion, in her later years, to accompany her. We went to dinner first and for drinks after, before I took her home.
Ceci was 97 when she died last year. Alice and her sister-in-law emptied Ceci’s rambling apartment with the grand piano, the Japanese prints and multiple sets of china. Last week, a package arrived at my doorstep.
It was one of Ceci’s purses. A structured purse of deep green suede and walnut-colored leather, with a complicated clasp and a hand-stitched handle. A Ceci purse, made in Italy, in perfect condition and still redolent with the smell of leather. A purse for a grande dame.
There’s a thing called “memento mori.” The Latin phrase means “Remember that you have to die.” The idea originated as a medieval Christian theory that we should live our lives by reflecting on our mortality, so that we can escape the temptations of our transient earthly existence.
Plato introduced the idea in his writings about the death of Socrates, saying that a thoughtful life is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.” Cheerful.
The ancient Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger (How ancient? Really ancient—he was an advisor to the Roman emperor Nero) offered a pithy summary in a collection of 124 letters that may or may not be fiction:
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”
Ash Wednesday is the modern Christian reminder that earthly pleasures are fleeting, and we should focus our thoughts on the afterlife. Does this sound familiar: “Remember, man, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” That’s what the priest says while inscribing your forehead with a cross of ashes.
So anyway, memento mori take various forms, most of them rather gruesome. Tombs decorated with skulls and cadavers, chapels whose walls are covered with bones, and even clocks or watches inscribed with the motto “tempus fugit”—time flies. Victorians created memento mori out of their loved ones’ hair, weaving or braiding it into rings, lockets and bracelets. Mourning wreaths were elaborate concoctions of flowers, leaves and branches composed of hair from multiple deceased family members.
Ceci would not have approved. I never got the sense she had mortality on her mind. No, a more appropriate phrase for her philosophy would have been joie de vivre, joy of living. She never lapsed, in my limited outings with her, into contemplation of life after death. She certainly never renounced the pleasures of an earthly life!
Even when her short term memory lasted no more than a minute, Ceci retained an air of elegance. She might not remember what she’d ordered for dinner—or even that she had ordered—but ask about her family history and she’d launch into detailed histories of her immigrant grandparents. The manners and mannerisms of a grande dame were so deeply ingrained, they carried her gracefully through her age of decline. I can only hope to do the same.
I laughed when I opened the package that contained her purse. It was so Ceci—and so Alice to know that I would love it. The idea of memento mori popped into my thoughts, with visions of those awful hair wreaths. I knew immediately that wasn’t Ceci.
When I contemplate the purse, I think of life—a vibrant embrace of daily pleasures. Ceci had her faults, but I never knew them. I’m free to follow her example: Carpe Diem. Seize the day!
The Resale Evangelista is simplifying, clarifying and trying to live a more artful life. When she can, she carpes the diem.