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What I Wore

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)

Read about dreaming of a brown Christmas and what you shouldn’t expect under the Christmas tree if you’re over the age of six

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{ 22 comments… add one }

  • Sophie December 17, 2012, 11:30 am

    My late mom was very stylish, in her own classic fashion. I have a couple of boiled wool sweaters of hers that I love wearing. Once when I was wearing one, my husband said, “It looks like you.” And at that moment, I realized how much my mom influenced my style, even though I rejected it when I was a teenager. As we reject so much of what our parents have to say at that age. I am so glad I have some of her clothes and that some of them fit me.

  • Brette Sember December 17, 2012, 11:53 am

    I have some inherited jewelry from my grandmother that makes me feel the same. I feel very connected to her when I wear it. My daughter also has a mink stole that was my grandmother’s. She hasn’t worn it yet, but I’m glad she has it.

  • Joanna Jenkins December 17, 2012, 12:25 pm

    Stopping by from HuffPost/50 to congratulate you on being named in their fave blogs list for women.

    Your post made me smile… and wish I had my grandmother’s fur coat. I’m not sure where it ended up, but your words about how your mother’s coat warmed you made me smile and think of my grandmother. Thanks you.

    Happy holidays, jj

  • Cindy D. December 17, 2012, 1:03 pm

    What a wonderful tribute to your mother. I’m sure if she could have she would have shown you this side of her love when she was alive. It’s a wonderful thing when we can forgive our mothers and just accept them for who they are/were. I’m happy for you.

  • Heather December 17, 2012, 1:16 pm

    My mother also had a fur coat. Your post brought back some good memories and some of the other kind as well. I guess it’s good to reflect this time of year.

  • Alexandra December 17, 2012, 1:27 pm

    That second to last paragraph is so beautiful and so wise! I think of this often, like when conflict enters my relationships with my own daughters. I wonder if they would call more often had I called my own mother more often? But then, I lived in France, and long distance was horribly expensive back then. But to return to your mom’s fur: my mom had one, too, and felt the same way about it. ( She won the fur jacket in a Sealtest contest. My dad felt he could not afford such luxury, although he did go out and buy her a matching fur hat.)

  • Alisa Bowman December 17, 2012, 3:58 pm

    I’m glad you have that jacket. Beavers died long, long ago for it–but if you don’t wear it, they die for nothing, right? It’s a beautiful symbol of all your parents worked so hard to accomplish.

  • Sheryl December 17, 2012, 5:14 pm

    Oh, Ruth. How well said. I hope your mother’s jacket continues to nurture you, perhaps in a different way than she was able.

  • Steve December 18, 2012, 8:18 am

    As so often happens with your writing, this posting was a gift itself. Thanks.

  • Living Large December 18, 2012, 9:09 am

    How nice it is that you’re able to wear something of your mothers. I could not wear any of my mother’s clothes as she was tiny and I am not. However, she gave me a t-shirt for my last Christmas. I love black bears and have it as decor in our little cabin in the woods. The t-shirt has a big black bear on the front with its arms stretching around to the back and it says, “Bear Hug.” My mother, who was already very ill when she gave me the shirt said, “Now you can think of me hugging you every time you put this on. It’s been 6 years and I haven’t been able to “bare” to wear it yet, it is still too painful.

  • Judy December 18, 2012, 9:31 am

    I agree with Alexandra, that second to last paragraph brought tears to my eyes. It is my relatioinship with my mother as well as somewhat my relationship with my daughter…although I’m proud to say we are closer than I am with my mom. The coat situation is me also. I own a full length mink coat which warmed me when we lived in a colder climate. In the four years I’ve lived in Texas I’ve had it on once. I’m dying for a chance to wear it. Love your blog.

  • Kerry Dexter December 18, 2012, 9:40 am

    a fine story with a lovely conclusion, Ruth. thank you.

    I do not have any handed down clothing, but I do have spoons and forks from my grandmother’s wedding silver. They live jumbled in the drawer with newer things. I find myself using those spoons almost every day.

    Your story had me thinking about the ways we hand down songs, too, and the ways we receive them, and the stories of that handing on that live alongside the words and melody.

  • Kate December 18, 2012, 11:38 am

    For me it is a cameo brooch from my mother. When I wear it, I feel the warmth of her presence even though she has been gone for 26 years.

  • Jane Boursaw December 18, 2012, 11:52 am

    I have a beaver coat of my mom’s, too. Thought about having it re-styled to be more modern, but that just doesn’t seem right.

  • Jennifer Margulis December 18, 2012, 12:52 pm

    I have some of my mom’s clothing. She died last year. It’s very special to me. And I feel closer to her every time I wear it. No fur though. She didn’t own a fur coat!

  • Irene December 18, 2012, 4:13 pm

    What an absolutely beautiful post! I bet your mom is beaming down on you and the jacket.

    Happy Holidays! Irene

  • Carolyn December 18, 2012, 7:02 pm

    Thank you, Ruth, for reminding us in a thoughtful and loving piece of history from your past of the importance of reusing. I wish more of us would.

  • Jeanine Barone December 18, 2012, 7:58 pm

    my mother had some great jewelry, including cameo brooches and lots of filigree earrings and necklaces. When I was a kid I never appreciated her collection. But now I see it’s all quite stylish.

  • Kristen December 18, 2012, 10:52 pm

    I’m not much of a jewelry person. But years ago my mother gave my some special earrings that I wear only on days when I need a little bit of a boost. I do feel that connection. Thanks for your post.

    Hey, where’s the picture?

  • merr December 19, 2012, 10:55 am

    I have some of my mother’s very pretty jewelry, and I have to be in a certain frame of mind to wear it. It brings up many memories.

  • Vera Marie Badertscher December 19, 2012, 11:03 pm

    I have some of my mother’s jewelry also, mostly Navajo and Hopi jewelry that is appropriate in Arizona where I live but not so much in Virginia where my sister lives. When mother was younger than I am now she insisted I take some of her jewelry because “you go out more than I do.” Now I’m the one who doesn’t go out much, and have no daughter to hand it to.

  • Chris December 25, 2012, 1:18 pm

    I read your post last week and thoroughly enjoyed it. Then while I was cooking yesterday, I thought about it again. I was using nutmeg and took out my German nutmeg grater which was my mother’s. I thought about how much I enjoy taking the nutmeg seed out of its little compartment and grating it on her grater. Thanks.

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