A girl's box of delights

My mother's secret drawer was a source of childhood joy.

One of my favourite pastimes as a child was to sit on my mother's bed, with my mother and my sister. My mother would pull out her special secret drawer and take things out, one by one, telling us the stories attached to them. The actual drawer was made of dark, polished wood, and it resided in a rather lovely built-in cupboard, such as you'd find in a 1930s mansion block, which is where we lived.

In it my mother kept (and in some cases, still does) all manner of ephemera that were the source of a whole afternoon's wonder for us. There was the concertina toilet bag that gently held pressed flat her most precious embroidered handkerchiefs. Little boxes, in which rattled about various trinkets and chains that had never made it into the small leather jewellery box for which my sister and I had paid a whole £5 at Whiteleys. Bars of soap moulded into impossibly impractical shapes; cards, exotic foreign coins, my father's pocket watch that he never wore. But the part of the drawer that fascinated me the most was the one which contained my mother's long suede opera gloves (they reached to the elbow) and a selection of small, beaded purses that hinted at a former life of almost impossible glamour.

The gloves made a particular impression. They were kept folded in half and perfectly flat, so that no impression of my mother's hands remained in them. She had worn them, she would tell us, when she used to go to the opera back in Italy, often with her eldest brother, Mimi. And there, in the wardrobe, would be the opera coat that she would have worn with them. The gloves captivated me. Through them we glimpsed the life my mother had led before us; akin, I imagined, to the sort of lives led in the black-and-white movies that we all watched together.

Some years later, as a teenager in the sixth form, I would borrow the gloves and wear them to school. I once sat, feeling very grand, wearing them through an entire French A-level class. I would return them, stealthily, every afternoon to the back of the drawer. Eventually, and to my eternal shame, I wore a small hole in one of the fingers. What my mother had preserved for decades, I had ruined in one short, selfish winter.

Over the years some of the little beaded purses have been given to me, and they still incite that same tremor of excitement. The gloves are still in my mother's drawer. Now I have my own daughter. One morning, trying to get ready while she wanted to be with me and I was (stupidly, short-sightedly) getting frustrated with her, I remembered my own simple delight at rummaging through "Mamma's things". I passed her an old leather make-up bag in which I keep special bits and pieces. She was captivated, and I realised it was about time I started my own special drawer, filled with things that would link her to my past, and me to her future.

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, What now?