As I reach for coats on these chilly days, I’m thinking about my mom and the coat she made me when I was in high school. It was a coat I resisted…until I didn’t.
She labored over that coat for months, my mother did. It must have been the ’50s when she wore the original one: black and white, long and boxy.
I saw photographs of her in it. She was standing sideways to the camera in front of Spring Creek Lutheran Church with Lois Peterson after a Ladies Aid meeting. Her face was smooth. Her chin was pointed like her tortoise framed eye glasses. Her strawberry blond hair was curled to look soft.
Nothing softened that long, heavy, winter coat with large patch pockets. The weave was dense and black, with white coming through along faint lines that ran up and down and across; not quite a plaid, yet more industrious than a tweed. One big heavy coat.
I was a teenager when my mother resurrected it from the cedar closet. She laid it across our Early American dining room table one Saturday, took out her frayed yellow tape measure and stretched it across the coat at every angle.
With conviction she looked up from her glasses and said, “I think I can make this coat over to fit you, Brenda.”
I didn’t want anything to do with it.
First she shopped for the pattern. Next she ripped all the seams open on her old coat.
She got out the green ironing board and her pressing cloth–a thin cotton dish towel with permanent stains in the shape of the iron.
She laid the cloth, soaking wet, over the pieces of coat. When the iron hit the cloth it sizzled. The air filled with steam and the dank smell of wet wool being tamed.
She was a perfectionist. The seams in this almost-but-not-quite-plaid fabric would have to match up.
This required some serious geometry. She measured carefully. “It’s close, but I think it’ll just make it,” she said.
She was giddy.
“Great,” I groaned, more interested in the vanilla ice cream I was squeezing between layers of graham crackers.
She worked away pinning the tissue pattern pieces into the fabric and cutting out the back pieces, front pieces, sleeves, and collar.
She brought me into the decision making process when it came to the lining. She’d narrowed it down to two choices that looked nearly the same: black pile, or black pile, both Orlon and fleecy feeling.
I couldn’t tell the difference and I didn’t care.
This pile stuff was pretty special to my mother. “Pile,” she’d coo, like it was mink or something.
I chose the black pile.
She transferred those same pattern pieces to the lining fabric and started cutting her way across the black turf.
From the top of the stairs I heard whirring stops and starts coming from the sewing machine as she started sewing the pieces together.
Whirr, whirr. Pause. Whirr, whirr, whirr.
I could tell when she was coming to an intersection of seams. I’d be listening, even though I didn’t want to. The motor strained, whined, and then zip, it was set free.
She’d made it over a tough part and was sailing along a side seam.
She was so proud the day she brought it up from the basement, finished. She was beaming, triumphant.
She held it out and I slipped it on. The sleeves were a little snug. I muttered thank you, went to my room, stood in front of the mirror and all I saw was Homemade Coat, Homemade Coat.
Everyone at school would know it was a Homemade Coat.
She never said anything when the weather got cold enough for coats and I wore my old brown corduroy coat from last year.
For Christmas Mom bought me soft yellow angora gloves and a long matching oblong scarf that wrapped perfectly around the stand up collar of the black and white coat. The soft yellow was a nice contrast to the hard fabric and straight lines. It was a a sunny color, a hopeful color. When I did wear that black and white coat, which was only over dresses to church on Sunday, the yellow long scarf and matching gloves were redemption.
My mother and I never talked much about that coat or anything else that winter.
I graduated from high school in the spring, headed for California and agreed to be back for winter semester at North Dakota State University.
I was gone five months. I marched in anti-war rallies, dated guys with ponytails, swam nude in heated swimming pools, argued the meaning of life around campfires with the Pacific Ocean roaring in my ears.
In November I came back to attend NDSU like I’d promised.
Things had changed. My friends were more interested in football games than Viet Nam. My dorm roommate skipped classes to smoke weed with new friends. The winds across the plains were much colder than I’d remembered.
I went home to pick up some warmer clothes. I opened the front closet to get a coat.
There was that black and white coat, center front, stoic.
I saw it for the first time. It was unusual. It would never show up on a clothes rack in a department store.
The thick, grandfather-like fabric was kind of…odd.
I touched the yellow scarf hanging faithfully over the neck of the hanger and reached inside the pockets where I found the matching gloves.
I slipped my arms through the snug sleeves.
It would be cool to wear it on campus. It was perfect–this plaid coat with the black pile lining, handmade to perfection by my mother.