Every few weeks, we get a big yellow postcard in the mail from the Epilepsy Foundation, letting us know that they are willing to take away whatever old clothes we'd like to give them. Just leave them in a plastic bag at the curb.
Amazingly, every time, we have something. It's not that we're constantly buying new clothes and so must get rid of the old; it must be that whatever we buy, we buy badly. It's never hard to fill a bag or two with stuff we no longer wear--shoes that pinch my toes, or jeans that have somehow mysteriously morphed into mom jeans while in my dresser, or t-shirts with silly logos, or sweaters that are scratchy or shirts that have grown too stained or too snug.
There's always something.
We got another postcard this week, so on Sunday afternoon, after the Riley walk, before the Super Bowl, I started hunting around. It didn't take very long before I had filled three sacks. And then I decided to tackle the basement closet, the odd little space that Jerry the handyman refers to as "King Tut's Tomb."
This is where our coats live, out of season and out of date. There was plenty that could go: I stuffed my old black winter coat into a sack--it still fits, but I haven't worn it in years and probably never will again. I grabbed an old red zip-up jacket that never quite fit and so I never quite wear.
And then my hand paused. Next on the pole hung an overcoat of my father's, and a cream-colored swing coat that had been my mother's.
I acquired these two coats the January my father died. It had been only a few days since his death, but when I stopped by the house my mother was briskly packing up his clothes for the Salvation Army and his books for my sister's church rummage sale. She wanted to move, immediately, and so she was being ruthless about what must go.
She had set aside some of my father's sweaters and ties for my brothers, and I said I wanted something, too. (My sister had already collected the books, which is what I really wanted--to this day, I only have a few and that's probably a good thing, given the size of our house.) Somehow--I don't remember the moment well--my mother handed me his coat.
It's off-white, with a blue suede collar, made in England and of very high quality. My father was not a large man, but he was certainly larger than I am; still, I put the coat on and it fit, in a way. It made me look quite blocky--it had no waist or belt--but my hands slipped easily into the pockets and if I wore a sweater under it, it would work. "I'll take this," I said.
And somehow--I don't quite remember this moment, either--my mother handed me a second coat. This one had been hers back when she was young, a full-length cream colored wool coat with a swirling, swinging skirt. It had two decorative silver buttons at the throat, but that was all--there were no other buttons, no zipper, no way to close the coat. It was meant to be pretty, not practical, and you held it closed by jamming your hands in the pockets and kind of hunching your shoulders.
She loved the coat, so pretty and swirly, but she wore it so much it began to wear out, and some time in the 1960s or 70s she had it cut down to mid-thigh length so that she could wear it with slacks.
(This is not the coat--this is my father's sister, Iny. But this is very much like my mother's coat.)
I slipped it on. The silk lining was stained, the pockets were ripped, but the swing of the short skirt was luscious. I took that coat too.
I have never worn either one. My father's coat makes me sad; it is so small, and so beautiful, and it reminds me of his trips to England and his admiration for high-quality and expensive things, which, with 10 children, he could seldom afford. I remember years and years ago, when all 10 of us were at home and he was working as a college professor, teaching two sessions of summer school because he needed the money but still getting the entire month of August off. And he used to go to Park Point in August and lie in the sand on a towel and read and read and read in the hot sun.
Sometimes on his way home he'd stop at Bagleys, which was the fine jewelry and china store in town. He'd walk in, sunburned, perhaps trailing grains of sand, wearing his moccasins and a white t-shirt, and, as he always told the story (and he told it more than once), the snooty Bagleys personnel would look down their nose at him and say, "Can I help you?" clearly thinking that he had no money for their fine things. But my mother's birthday is in August, and Guv would look around at the bone china and the Limoges porcelain and the gold jewelry, and he would buy her something.
I think he got as much of a kick out of showing off for the Bagleys clerks as he did presenting the gift later to my mother, who would usually get very upset because of the expense.
I pulled my father's coat off the hanger and stuffed it in the bag. Then I slipped on my mother's coat. My fingers poked through the little tears in the pocket, my nose sniffed a musty smell, but oh how the skirt swung. I swished back and forth, and then I slid it off again. It needs cleaning. The seam at the back of the neck is beginning to pull apart. Those pockets definitely need to be stitched closed. And when would I ever wear it? It's been eight years since my father died, and this coat has been in the closet those whole eight years.
I hung my mother's coat back on its wooden hanger, which I hooked over the wooden pole, and then I closed the door to King Tut's Tomb.
Bit by bit, but not all at once. That's the way to do these things.