Older women can teach us a lot if we just watch and listen. Sometimes they set out to teach a lesson, and sometimes it just happens. I’m pretty sure the Shoe Lady didn’t intend to instruct anybody in the fine art of shopping when she rolled out of bed that morning, but I gave her a spur-of-the-moment opportunity, and she took it.

Here’s where I need to add some clarification. I am not a purse person. To me, purses are overpriced depositories for used Kleenexes, stray pennies, gum wrappers, notepads that never get written in and coupons that never get used, over-stuffed wallets and hand lotion and lip balm and emery boards you can never find. They increase in weight exponentially, and the havoc they wreak on female spines makes chiropractors rich.

All that said, a purse will occasionally catch my eye. This is the one, I think, that will change everything. I will love it forever, and it will love me. The honeymoon lasts about three weeks, and then we get divorced, and I go back to one I’ve already divorced—perhaps several times—or I start prowling the purse bars again.

That particular day I didn’t mean to buy a purse, but there it was: big and gaudy with patchwork pieces of pink and yellow and green and turquoise and orange and purple. Bright colors, and lots of them, are my siren call. Why look like an accountant if you can look like a gypsy? Two of these purses sat side by side on the rack, but I was taking no chances. I grabbed one and hauled it around the store while I did the rest of my shopping. At some point, its Plain Jane cousin, black and white and far more usable and far more appropriate, caught my attention. The usual mental war began: accountant vs. gypsy, sense vs. nonsense, grown-up vs. not-so-grown-up.

The war continued as I tried on clothes. A nondescript older woman sat by the dressing room entrance, and she and I exchanged smiles each time I walked by with a different armload of clothes with the multi-colored purse hanging on my arm. Somehow, she knew when I’d tried on everything I was going to try on, and on my last trip out the dressing room, she said, “I sure like that purse.”

“So do I,” I said, “but I don’t know if I should get it.”

“Why not?”

Feeling like an idiot, I explained. “There’s a black-and-white one just like it over there. My heart wants this one, but my head wants me to get the other one.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s more sensible.”

That’s when she told me a story about a much-younger her. She’d been married only a couple of years when she’d had surgery that had kept her bedridden for several weeks. Before the surgery, she and her husband had gone shopping in a nearby department store, and she’d fallen in love with a pair of bright orange shoes, patent leather with a big bow. Her husband said the black ones were much more practical. Well, she didn’t like the black ones, and she and her husband didn’t have a lot of money so she left without buying anything.

Later, while she was recuperating from her surgery, her mother sent her a check with instructions to buy something nice for herself. As soon as she could get out of bed, she walked to the department store.  She said the walk “liked to’ve killed her,” but when she got there she bought her orange shoes.

“So,” she concluded, “if you don’t buy that purse, I will.”

“Oh, I’m buying it,” I said, recognizing a fellow gypsy despite her drab plumage, “but there’s another just like it over there. I’ll get it for you.”

She smiled as I handed her my purse’s twin. I paid my bill, and when I turned to wave at her, she was examining the purse and smiling.

The purse and I divorced long ago. Sometimes we get back together for old time’s sake, but those reconciliations always end in another separation. However, unlike its companions, it has a safe haven inside my closet. When I think it’s time to be sensible, all I have to do is look at it and remember my gypsy sister, the Shoe Lady.