In Other Words: When mink ruled - fur-lined memories
My mother’s old mink coat hangs in the guest room closet on a puffed velvet hanger 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 verve.
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 dealing with 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 small 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 it mainly because it had been a gift from my father, who believed mink signified the depth of his devotion, as did the diamond engagement ring he gave her when he graduated from law school. It was that same ring, which, one New Year’s Eve on a champagne high, she accidentally flushed down the toilet. But that’s 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. She wore it to occasions large and small, and it still retains the slight smell of Joy perfume — her favorite. She sported it to the theater, 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.
Many milestones went down in that coat, including celebratory dining experiences when she handed over the mink to the coat check matron. Along with it came a set of instructions to look after it as though it were a prized possession requiring tender loving care lest some disaster befall it, or another patron might claim it as her own (my mother could become 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 Fifth Avenue, having enjoyed some hot chocolate at Rumplemeyer’s. The temperature was dropping rapidly, and the snow began falling fast as I walked along, shivering inside my navy blue coat with the velvet collar. My mother, noting my discomfort, opened her coat. “Step inside,” she said, inviting me into 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 the air was filled with such familial camaraderie.
When I visit the coat, which I do with frequent regularity, it seems to have shrunk in size, as my perspective on life grows larger. It still hangs in the cavernous, dark closet as a reminder of what once was. Sometimes, it’s almost as though my mother is still present, sitting at her vanity, applying makeup and combing her hair into a tight chignon. I enjoyed watching her dress and descend the stairs looking like a petite and elegant goddess, ready for a night on the town.
I treasured those magical, sparkling nights as much as she did, as I stood by the door, handing over her little clutch. She bent down and kissed me goodnight, promising to bring me back a little surprise: a matchbook from a restaurant, a chocolate bar or a Playbill from a recent Broadway show.
We said our goodbyes, which included furry hugs, and my mother smiling softly and smelling lovely, the whiff of her perfume intoxicatingly heady as I inhaled deeply, observing it all from the sidelines with my own anticipatory excitement.
On such nights, my dad, looking handsome and debonair, lovingly draped the mink coat around his wife’s — my mother’s — delicate shoulders. They walked out into the evening air: A snapshot frozen in time, and as vivid as my mink-lined memories, safely sequestered behind the closet door.
Judith Marks-White’s “In Other Words” column appears monthly. She can be reached at email@example.com and judithmarks-white.com