What’s in Your Wallet?

This photo of my mother and me was found in my father’s wallet after he died at the age of thirty-three from lung cancer. I must be around two years old in the photo and my mother, twenty-one. At first, I regretted its wrinkles and creases and then admired them for what they revealed—the wear and tear of everyday life while my father kept those he loved nearby.

I recall the faded, square imprint made by his wallet in the back pocket of his jeans. I remember how much he fretted over how his wallet was not filled with as much money as he’d have liked. And I recollect how he’d come home from work and pile his keys, hat, and wallet on top of the television set before he settled into “his” chair for the evening. Then, he’d pick them up on the way out the door the next morning, the routine continuing.

The idea that he’d kept this photo with him every day until he died had always impressed me and haunted me. Then I did the math. He was thirty-three, I was twelve when he died. He’d carried it for only ten years. Then, I wondered why he’d carried it. What about this photo did he love so much? (My chubby cheeks and delightful smile aside!)

My mother had this photo taken while he was deployed on a ship during the Vietnam War. She’d recently lost weight and died her hair blonde. She was a natural brunette—chestnut, thick and wavy, beautiful. She may have sent it to him while he was deployed, so maybe it was that heartwarming token to keep a soldier thinking of home. Who knows, he may have secretly preferred her as a blonde. Or he may have been nostalgic for a simpler time. He may have needed a reminder of what he worked so hard for each day at the Norfolk shipping docks as a longshoreman. He may have forgotten that it was in his wallet, compressed by other, more urgent necessities like credit cards and his driver’s license.  It may have just been lost in the fold of leather and time.

Ultimately, I’ll never know the answer for certain. But what I do know is that what we carry (in wallets, in purses, on our phones) says something about what we value or find interesting or want to have nearby to comfort and keep us going through the daily grind of life.

Many writing workshops on character development include the tip to go through a character’s purse to figure out her psyche. Were you to go through my purse you’d be concerned about my chaotic life after scraping out crushed packets of Truvia and crumpled grocery receipts or a mini-bottle of expired Advil. But on my phone, you’d find those smiling snapshots of life that I peruse on a quiet moment on the train, or those funny and undeleted, texts from my husband that still make me laugh, or several dozen browsers opened to half-read (but interesting) articles that I’d promised myself I’d return to when I had the time.

Material stuff has generally become less valued during this past year of pandemic and isolation. We seemed to have come to a collective understanding that accumulated items matter less than the people in our lives and the times we create with them. For those of us struggling to find the file space in our memory bank for all of these sweet moments, we rely on whatever it takes to recall those relationships and connections and keep them close. Even if crinkled by time and faded by the crush of daily priorities, we carry these artifacts in our purses, phones, and wallets as reminders of what life is all about. So, what’s in your wallet?


  1. Man! Once again you think so deeply!!!! I wish I could spend just one day in your head seeing the world from your perspective ?. And you are so right about the purse thing !!! My kids constantly joke me about rummaging through my purse looking for stuff?. It may take a while but I always find what I’m looking for …..maybe that should be my life saying ?

  2. Hi Denise,
    Marie sent your recent wallet piece to me.
    It has certainly started lots of thoughts and trying to remembers that I find a pleasure and continuing to return to my memory.
    You writing is so easy to read and you create pictures with your words.
    Thank you
    I believe that you and Pete have had an anniversary recently . Such a happy day in OBX.
    Happy Anniversary !!!
    Bettie Howard

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