To Vivi, a handbag was not just a thing one carried around, the companion on the shoulder or the arm, that held her things. A bag was not just a symbol or a utilitarian bit of kit that every woman should have. For Vivi a bag was a source of magic, a thing that had once changed the life and fortunes of an unfortunate pair of twins. Vivi knew this to be true, because she had been one of them.
Vivi's bag was an adorable, monogrammed Neverfull from Louis Vuitton, but it hadn't always been so. The bag was a limited run, one of only a few hundred in the world, with a rose splash on the side. The handles had been replaced once, professionally, because she'd worn out the bag so often. That was the thing about the perfect bag, the one that just fit, the one that was really "your" bag.
Vivi could clearly remember her first bag, something that the Vivi of today would hardly even call a bag. By definition, it had been a bag, but it had been made of plastic. Vivi's first bag had not been a designer thing, and there were many more like it in the world. The first bag had been found blowing across a parking lot, where Vivi stood outside, watching other people go in and then come out with bags filled with food.
Vivi picked up the bag and balled it up, shoved it into the pocket of a faded denim jacket, which was too thin for the cold and a size too small. She ducked her head against the winter wind and followed the next man into the store.
Inside, the bustle of those preparing for Christmas feasts with families was a stifling thing. The place was packed with busy folks, pushing carts, walking with arms full, all of them going their way and doing their thing, paying little mind to the girl in the thin denim jacket.
Vivi was nine years old, a scrap of a thing with one less tooth than she'd had two days ago and far less energy than the week before. This was because Vivi and her sister had only a bit to share and that bit had run out. Now, it was up to Vivi to get more.
Allie hadn't wanted Vivi to steal something from the store, but Vivi had no money and neither did Allie. Allie also did not want to admit that their mother wasn't coming home, but Vivi knew that a trip to the store did not take over a week to come home from, and both of the girls were hungry.
Vivi looked at the floor, weaving her way through the Christmas shoppers, and deftly snagged a travel size box of crackers. A small jar of peanut butter was next, followed by a package of cheese slices. Vivi began to get scared after this.
Glancing around, she took the three items, put them into the shopping bag and weaved through the people toward the door. In the holiday chaos, it seemed, she'd been unnoticed. Carrying the plastic bag, just like everyone else on the far side of the register, Vivi made for the door.
"Excuse me, honey," came a voice, before she could make it out, "Can you please come over here?"
The voice was that of a woman in a black coat and the coat said "Security" in yellow letters.
Vivi felt that she could make a run for the door. It wasn't far and surely she could be faster than the security woman. Then, a hand fell on her shoulder, drawing Vivi's gaze from the woman in the jacket to another woman in a long wool coat.
"There you are, honey!" the woman said, "Good grief! I didn't get those ones paid for, yet!"
The woman in the wool coat turned to the security woman and said, "I'm so sorry. She just wants to get home. It's been a day."
The security woman backed down, seeming to understand, and then the woman in the wool coat guided Vivi and her bag back to the other side of the registers.
"That was bold," she said to the girl, "but silly."
The woman took Vivi to a side aisle and knelt down, taking the bag from her hand and looking inside.
"Are you here by yourself?" she asked.
"Where are your parents?" she implored.
"I don't know," Vivi admitted, "My mom went to the store, but she didn't come back. That was last week. It's just me and Allie."
The woman asked, "Last week?"
"We were really hungry, and I didn't have any money, so I thought I could... you know," Vivi explained, looking down and shuffling her feet.
"My name is Joan," the woman said, and reached into her handbag.
The handbag, Vivi saw, had a little silver logo that looked like two C's. A packet of tissues came out of the bag, one of which Joan used to wipe Vivi's nose.
"Who is Allie?" Joan asked.
Joan nodded and asked, "Do you live far?"
"Not far," Vivi answered.
"Let me pay for these," Joan said, indicating the bag, "and I'll take you home. Would that be alright?"
Vivi nodded and followed Joan to the register, where the woman reached into her handbag, retrieved a card, and paid for the items. She took Vivi's hand and led her out to her car, a black Mercedes.
"Can you show me where you live?" Joan asked, and Vivi guided her.
The drive to Vivi's home took fifteen minutes by car, and as they drove Joan asked, "You walked all this way?"
Vivi nodded. Joan shook her head. She pulled the car into the driveway of a tumbledown house, which barely fit the definition. The roof slanted precariously on one side and a plastic bag covered one window. Through another window, the face of a girl peeked curiously.
Vivi and Joan walked to the door, which opened on creaking hinges. Inside, it was very dark and cold. A small, blonde head poked curiously from around a doorway.
"Vivi?" came a whisper.
"It's me," Vivi answered.
"Did you find mom at the store?"
Vivi shook her head and said, "No. This is Ms. Joan. She helped me get some food."
Vivi showed Allie the crackers, peanut butter and cheese, which the girl tore into immediately.
"Ms. Joan," Vivi said, "Do you know how to find a mom?"
Joan wiped at her eyes and answered, "I'm not sure. I need to make a phone call."
A police car arrived not long after, followed by another, and then an ambulance. Joan spoke with an officer, who then asked Vivi and Allie several questions about their mother. The people in the ambulance poked them a bit, looked in their eyes and then spoke again with Ms. Joan, who shook her head, nodded her head, then shook her head some more.
The officers returned and repeated this process, while Vivi munched on one of the crackers and Ms. Joan nodded her head, shook her head, then nodded her head some more. She reached into the bag and handed the officers a card, then reached into her bag once more and produced a pen. She wrote on another card and handed this one to the other officer.
Ms. Joan made more phone calls as the girls ate the crackers, then still more phone calls as they ate the cheese. When the woman, at last, put the phone into her handbag she knelt next to Vivi.
"Vivi? Allie? Would you like to come to my house for a little while?" Ms. Joan asked, "Maybe for Christmas?"
The two girls shared a look and then together they nodded. One of the officers walked the three of them to Ms. Joan's car, where the girls sat in the heat as the woman spoke again to the officer. Then, she joined them in the car.
Ms. Joan asked them questions as they drove, and then she took them to her home, which was large and much fancier than what they were used to. The home had framed pictures of women in clothes, women on runways showing clothes, women with handbags and some that were handbags with no women in them.
When Vivi asked about these Ms. Joan replied that she designed clothes and bags, and that several companies bought and used her designs. In particular she liked to draw designs of bags and had a large album on her coffee table that contained her favorites.
That night, Vivi sat on Ms. Joan's couch, next to a roaring fireplace. She held a mug of cocoa and a cookie, because Ms. Joan said that every girl should be entitled to cookies and cocoa at Christmas time. As she sipped the cocoa and ate the cookie, she flipped the pages in Ms. Joan's book. Allie sat nearby, eating her own cookie, drinking her own mug, and Ms. Joan answered Vivi's questions about the pictures in the book.
Viv's second bag was a much nicer affair than her first, which hadn't really been much of a bag at all. She received it from Ms. Joan on Christmas morning, and Allie got one, too. The bag was a smaller version of the one Ms. Joan liked to carry, the black one with the silver C's, which Ms. Joan explained was the logo for a company called Coco Chanel.
Allie's bag was the same, but hers was red, and then Ms. Joan gave them more things to put into the bags, to fill them like hers. Vivi never lost the wonder at the things that were in Ms. Joan's bag.
As that first year passed, and mother never returned, Ms. Joan had to go to a lot of offices with the girls in tow. There were always papers to sign, people to talk to, and much of it involved Ms. Joan shaking her head, nodding her head, then shaking her head some more.
Throughout all of this, Ms. Joan's bag seemed to supply everything that was necessary. When Vivi sneezed too hard and got snot on her new coat, the bag produced tissues. When Allie tripped and cut her knee, the bag contained bandages. When there were things to buy (and there were always things to buy) the bag produced money or cards that bought it. Before meetings, the bag produced makeup, which Ms. Joan used to touch up with.
"A bag isn't just a bag," Ms. Joan explained to Vivi one day, as she escorted the girls out of yet another meeting, "A woman's bag is like a survival kit and an indication of where she's going, where she's been, and where she wants to be. A handbag tells a story and a handbag is a friend."
"How can you be friends with a bag?" Allie asked.
"Because a friend is always there to go places with you," Ms. Joan said, letting them into her car, "a handbag keeps your secrets, never fails you, and no matter what you do it's always ready for another adventure."
Vivi learned a great deal about bags, particularly how to design them herself. While Allie liked bags and Allie like clothes, Vivi loved them dearly. Ms. Joan was happy to show her what she knew, always imparting those odd little lessons along the way.
As the years went by, the lessons still came, but they were not always lessons about the bags. Ms. Joan seemed to know a little bit about everything and Vivi soaked up the lessons readily.
These days, it was Vivi herself that designed the bags, even though Ms. Joan was still there to impart a lesson every now and again. Her own bag, she had not designed, but she appreciated the beauty and the utility of it. Ms. Joan had been right. The perfect bag, she'd learned, was all the things her unexpected, adopted mother had said.
Now, Vivi carried her bag on her shoulder and more bags in her hands. The bags she carried contained gifts, gifts for her own little girls. As she wove through the Christmas press of the mall, the sight of a girl, no more than nine, her face pressed to a Macy's store window, stopped her and she cocked her head.
The girl's palms were on the glass and her eyes were on a little straw crossbody. Vivi's expert eye noted that the little bag was nothing special, a store brand, circular, brightly colored, from International Concepts. To the girl at the window, though, it was special.
Vivi walked into the store, pulled one of the bags from a nearby display and paid for it. She walked back out and, sure enough, there was the girl, still looking in the window at the bag.
Vivi knelt next to her, handed her the bag, and watched her wide eyes and small hands take it in.
"Merry Christmas," said Vivi, "Is that your first bag?"
The girl nodded.
"I hope you'll always remember it. There will be others, probably a lot prettier than this one, but there's nothing quite as special as the first one."
"Thank you," said the girl, "Merry Christmas."
Vivi smiled, rose, and stood by for a few minutes. The girl's mother retrieved her, asked her about the bag, to which the girl replied, "Santa just gave it to me!"
Vivi watched them walk away, the girl with the little straw crossbody across her chest. She hefted her bags and continued walking, making her way to a black Mercedes, where she put her haul into the trunk.
As she drove, she thought about the girl and she thought about Christmas. She thought about Allie and she thought about Ms. Joan. She prayed for the girl and hoped that wherever her life took her, that her bag would serve her well. If there was one person, in all the world who knew about the right bag, it was Vivi. Vivi knew that the right bag, at the right time, could change a life.