Thursday, January 25, 2007

Winter coats

In 1994, my mother treated my sister and I to a pre-Christmas present: she bought us each a full-length wool winter coat, and a pair of leather winter boots, each of our choosing, but within the bounds of 'sensible' and 'adult'.

Mom had come to Toronto, where both my sister and I attended university, on business. S. and I took the bus to her airport hotel, had lunch in the hotel restaurant, and then headed downtown all together in a taxi--this all sticks out for its sheer extravagance (well, except the bus part. Journeys by TTC I was all too familiar with ...). We looked for coats at The Bay. I remember racks and racks and racks. We got our boots here too. I ended up with a long, slightly large black wool/cashmere London Fog coat, in a classic double-breasted cut, along with knee-high, fluff-lined, black leather boots. My sister got a blue wool coat in a slightly different cut, and brown leather, mid-calf boots.

I often think of that day we three spent together, and not just because, 13 years later, I'm still wearing both coat and boots. No. What really makes it vivid is my memory of the context, and how I keep reinterpreting that context in the light of my growing set of life experiences.

First -- what a thoughtful, thoughtful gift, a practical, timely gift, at a moment of transition. You have to imagine my sister and I in our prior winter gear: she in a ratty and not-warm-enough L. L. Bean forest green hunting jacket, lined with red and black plaid, paired usually with a bulky cardigan and a pair of Doc Marten ankle boots; me in a fall-weight tweed car coat handed down from my dad, that didn't do up to the neck and was supplemented by several undersweaters, while on my feet I usually had 14-hole steel-toed combat boots. These student ensembles were really neither practical nor stylish. Nor were they particularly adult. Now, we were poor students, tuition- and residence-subsidized by the 'rents (a real privilege, I realize), but subsisting on very little cash, day to day. Mom got us quality, grown-up winter wear that was warm and classy.

Second -- spending time with me was probably not easy for Mom. I was in the full throes of my vampire phase, and although I have nothing to apologize for (I was a straight-A student, near-teetotaller, monogamous, and a thank-you-note-writer--I loved my mother and craved her attention, and held pretty much to the values I was raised on, with a little black lipstick for dash), I can well imagine my mother's discomfort witnessing this bizarre transformation of her little blonde, blue-eyed cutie into a heavily eye-lined, black-haired, nose-pierced, lace-and-PVC wearing weirdo. Still, she bought me a black coat, in the hopes that its classiness and usefulness would outlast my 'phase'.

Third -- spending time with my sister was definitely not easy for Mom. My sister, at the time of this shopping expedition, was four months pregnant, recently dumped by her boyfriend, and making wrenching decisions about adoption versus parenting. She was starting to show. My mother was heartbroken and at a loss, terrified of what the future would hold for everyone. Still, she bought S. a coat and boots, in the hopes of a professional, well-clothed and well-shod future.

Mom probably spent a good $800-900 on us that day, an investment in our present and in our futures, a gift marking the transition from children to adults: our outerwear was no longer, really, her problem, and this shopping day, so much like our family hunts every fall of our childhoods for snowsuits and hats and mitts, really marked an ending. I was 21, my sister 20, and my mom has never bought us coats or hats or mitts since. Because we are on our own.

This was twelve years ago. A lot has come and gone in that time. My sister decided, over Christmas break, after feeling her unborn baby kicking up against her, to keep him for herself. We love him to bits, 'Gramma' especially. She graduated university a little behind schedule, ultimately marrying the then-absent boyfriend, and they've had a second child while they pursue professional careers. I think they're on house number 3 and cars number 4 and 5. For my part, I'm a blonde and blue-eyed cutie again, and did an MA and a PhD before moving back close to home for my professor gig. Now I'm married with a baby, too. My Mom has retired, sold the home we grew up in, moved to a new city and is renovating a new house on the water with my Dad.

And still, the coats and the boots.

My coat has been my gear-of-first-resort ever since its purchase. In Toronto, with my army boots and a fake-fur black scarf, I was both cool and warm. In frigid frigid Edmonton, I could layer a polar fleece jacket under the coat, and with my knee-high boots to complete the look, make the 30 minute walk from apartment to campus in relative comfort. On the academic job market, layered over a suit, the coat made me look quasi-professional and gave me confidence. I'm still wearing it, because even though I have a newer and cuter red wool/cashmere car coat, it doesn't match, say, my green cords, and it's not appropriate with skirts or evening wear.

This week, as I shook the coat off and onto a table in the room where I teach my graduate seminar, I noticed that the heavy satin lining has torn along the seams under the arms. I already knew the the lining was wearing through at the wrists and the bottoms. The threadbare state of the arms and neck, too, was well-known to me. It's probably time to throw it out: really, it's seen 12 years of constant use and is literally wearing out. But I'd miss that little reminder, every time I put it on, of my family. Because every time I slip it off the hanger (or pull it off the table), a little version of this post flashes through my mind.


NotSoSage said...

Beautiful post. It's as warm and comfortable as the coat it's written about.

In my first year of university, in BC, I wore a leather jacket that I'd liberated from my dad's closet. I realised, six months later, that my dad and I must have had the same nervous habit -- rubbing the outside of the cuff with our fingers -- because it was wearing away in one specific spot.

Going through a similar (but more colourful) phase, I kept repeating to my mother a mantra similar to what you listed here: "At least you can feel secure in knowing that the bulk of my experimentation is with my appearance and not any of the far more dangerous options."

Alpha Dogma said...

This was a great post. You should email this (or a version) to your mom. She'd probably love it.

And for what it is worth: it doesn't cost much to have a seamstress (what is the gender neutral term for this job? Seamsir?) replace a coat lining.

Mad Hatter said...

What a lovely story. I can just see baby Goth you at the Bay, visually stiking but keen and perky. A lovely image indeed.

Beck said...

What a beautiful post! It made my heart ache a little bit, picturing myself as the Mother and not as the student. And also it made me feel a bit like a bonehead, since my mom bought me new winterboots last winter (Lots of kids+artist husband = no money.)

ewe are here said...

This is a really really lovely post. I hope you've considered telling your mom how you felt about that day, even now, so many years later. It would probably mean a lot to her.

MotherBumper said...

What a fantastic post. So familiar in some ways - I pushed my mom to the absolute limits along with my sister. This was lovely to read.

kittenpie said...

Ah, lovely! You could take some of that wool and some of that satin and make a nice cushion or something to keep the reminder.