My mother's old mink coat hangs in the guest-room closet on a puffed velvet hangar befitting its pedigree. The coat serves more as memory now than as a functional article of clothing. When she died in 1988, I relinquished many of the relics of her past. The mink, endured, however, as did the connection we shared of days gone by when my mother sported that coat with great style and flair.
Through the years, wearing fur was handed a bad rap. It became politically incorrect to parade furs as status symbols acquired through the slaughtering of animals. Animal rights activists were inflamed. Paint throwing became an acceptable form of acting out, and many former fur owners threw in their coats or gave them away, resorting to wearing faux fur rather than dealwith the repercussions.
I followed suit. Fur jackets were tucked away, and wool coats in winter and cloth coats in spring became the acceptable fashion statement. Those who didn't mind being in the minority, unable to part with their precious seal, lamb, chinchilla, fox and mink, and who were brave enough to endure the furtive, disapproving glances, stayed true to their furs, offering lame excuses:
"I bought this old thing years ago, so I might as well wear it."
When it came to my mother's mink, parting with it seemed unimaginable as if by doing so, I would be severing a vital part of the mother-daughter bond. Instead, I squeezed the coat in between other discarded items: old blankets, ski outfits and Laura Ashley dresses that would never again see the light of day. Occasionally, when I check on these random keepsakes, I am transported back to another time when memories are ignited, and my mother, decked out in her coat, and I shopped the New York department stores, ending up at the Plaza's Palm Court where the ladies-who-lunched, looked like pudgy stuffed animals in their respective furs.
My mother's petite frame made her look oddly distorted in that coat. It was slightly overpowering in that the abundance of pelts seemed like overkill on a body that was best suited for less conspicuous attire. But she coveted that coat mainly because it had been a gift from my father, who believed that mink signified the depth of his devotion as did the diamond engagement ring he had given her when he graduated from law school -- the one, which, one New Year's Eve on a champagne high, my mother accidentally flushed down the toilet. But that is another story.
The mink coat remained intact through the years. It's difficult to kill a mink even one that had morphed from animal to inanimate object. My mother wore that coat to occasions large and small. It still retains the slight smell of Joy perfume -- her favorite. She wore it to Broadway shows, the ballet, concerts, holiday parties and even football games, where she, my dad and I sat in the bleachers rooting for my father's college team, my mother pulling the mink collar around her to ward off the autumn chill.
Lots of milestones went down in that coat including celebratory dining experiences when she handed over the mink to the coat-check matron with a set of instructions to look after it as though it were a treasured possession requiring tender loving care lest some disaster befall it,or another patron might claim it as her own. (My mother became slightly paranoid when it came to mink).
As the years progressed, the coat began showing signs of decline and lost its luster. A few of the pelts loosened, and the wide fur collar became frayed and limp.It had stood the test of time -- as did my mother -- but as with most things that can't endure forever, the coat simply wore itself out. It was no longer the mink that it was back in the mid-1950s when I stood on the rim of adolescence waiting for my life to start.
One moment resonates still. It was winter and my mother and I were walking down 5th Avenue having just enjoyed some hot chocolate at Rumplemeyer's. The temperature was dropping rapidly, and the snow began falling fast and furiously as I walked along shivering inside my little navy blue coat with the velvet collar. My mother, noting my discomfort, opened her coat. "Step inside," she invited me in to the massive mountain of fur with its scalloped-edged satin lining, the aroma of stale perfume, lingering still. There we were, the two of us in the late afternoon, walking along encased in mink as though the coat had suddenly come to life, our hands entwined, laughing as we strolled, oblivious to the world around us. It's been years since those days when the air was filled with such familial camaraderie.
The coat seemed to have shrunk in size, as my perspective on life grew larger. It still hangs in the cavernous, dark closet as a reminder of what once was, and sometimes, it's almost as though my mother is still around, preparing for a night out as my dad wrapped the coat around her shoulders -- a snapshot frozen in time -- as vivid as my mink-lined memories safely sequestered behind the closet door.