I know it isn’t politically correct to wear a fur coat and I know some of my friends will want to string me up for wearing one.
But I am the beneficiary of two fur jackets that hang in a back closet in our condo. They were passed down to me from my mother and mother-in-law. Both women are long dead — as are the animals themselves.
So, I apologize, but once or twice a year — when the temperature plummets below 60 in our uber-balmy climate — I wear one of them. Like last week.
It was cold, kind of, and we had a dressy holiday party to go to. So why not?
My mother-in-law lived in affluent circumstances, entertained a lot, and was quite theatrical. She loved wearing fur and draped herself in it with aplomb. From her (by way of my sister-in-law Susan, if you want to get technical about it) I have a mink jacket.
My mother was very different, quiet and self-effacing in public. She and my father always struggled financially. They scrimped, they saved, they did without. They had both grown up in Oklahoma during the Great Depression, close to the Dust Bowl, and those memories were seared in them forever.
They worried that my sister and I never understood that kind of hardship or how to stretch a dollar till it begged you to stop. They were right about that, of course. Those lessons were theirs, not ours or our generation’s. But I am still constitutionally incapable of throwing out, say, a bottle of shampoo before I have added a little water to it and used the very last drop of it. That little bit of the Dust Bowl, some kind of inherited deprivation, maybe, still lingers in me.
My parents paid off their mortgage when they were in their sixties. They bought champagne, which was unheard of at our house, and toasted themselves in the late morning hours, which was so uncharacteristic, it still surprises me to think about it. But that’s how significant it was to them. Finally, after working for decades, they owned their own house free and clear.
It was around this time, when they were able to be a little more flexible financially, that they bought the beaver jacket for my mother. I remember her talking about buying it — how the saleswoman in the local department store was a bit haughty to them. “I guess she didn’t realize we could afford anything like this,” Mother said, in a more charitable tone than I would have used. She showed me the jacket, lush and beautiful, with her initials embroidered in its pocket.
I don’t know how many times she wore the jacket before she began her vicious descent into Parkinson’s disease. Somewhere along the way, the jacket was packed into a closet and forgotten. After Mother died in 1997, my sister said she didn’t want the jacket since it made her look too short. So, it became mine.
I wore it last week. It settled on me with the odd weight an inherited item carries — the aspirations and the triumphs it represented to those who bought it. Like the paid-for house, it had not been a small thing for my parents.
As I said, my mother was quiet and self-effacing in public. But in private, she could be hell and I’m sure she would have said the same thing about me. She and I had a strained and difficult relationship.
But that’s never the entire story, is it? You can plumb the depths of a mother-daughter relationship — the love, the bitterness, the resentment, the attachment, the fierce affection, the fury — and never get to the bottom of it, still never quite comprehend all of it. You keep searching, and those tiny, intricate nesting dolls of emotion continue to reveal a little more.
All I can tell you is that all those complications and contradictions fell away last week when I put on my mother’s jacket. It warmed me, it comforted me, it made me feel loved.
(Copyright 2012 by Ruth Pennebaker)