My Mother's Mink
What does one do with an inheritance this gorgeous and politically incorrect?
It lived in a cool, dark closet, sleek, shining, enjoying its own girth-my deceased mother's mink all in its enormity. "Somebody's got to take that," my father said not long after Mom passed away. "It's fabulous."
My brother, sister and I slouched deeper in our chairs at this. We were still getting used to the idea that our mother was gone. And now, oh, Lord, that mink, a remnant of her glamorous existence, more a signature piece really than a status symbol, a garment that had suited her big personality. What do you do with something like that? Throw it over the couch?
"Amy's the only one who could possibly use it," my sister, Kathryn, said. And then everyone looked at me.
I am the mother of two school-aged boys. I go to soccer games and school fairs. I smear my own makeup-without intending to, that is. Plus, sure, while I like a good black-tie dinner party as much as the next gal, it has been awhile. And those anti-fur photographs of animal faced pressed against the bars of filthy cages were enough to sway me.
And yet, this coat was designed by Pauline Trigere, the gloriously refined designer, who (I later learned) had died five weeks after my mother's death. The mink swings like a dream and falls beautifully down the body, resolving in a gentle, scalloped hem. I knew that my mother's elegant signature was embroidered in the rich brown satin lining. I also knew what the coat's silky pockets usually contained: a concert- or theatre-ticket stub, and a lace handkerchief. The act of drawing this coat's shawl collar up around your ears can transport you to the set of Doctor Zhivago. And the scent of my mother's perfume somehow lingers.
As a younger woman, I'd taken Mom's mink for a spin around the room, and I knew the grim burden of the truth. This albatross, I looked really good in it.
"Take it, Take it," Dad said approvingly when he saw me in it. "It should be taken to a furrier and rolled into peanut shells, or cleaned-I don't know what they do."
Neither did I, but I couldn't quite visualize this high-powered pet sagging on a wire hanger next to my kids' rain slickers. Had I married an investment banker, I could have worn Mom's mink with pride every wedding anniversary. But, happily, I had selected a print journalist who fails to see the merits of anything fluffier than Chester, our cockapoo. He despises beads and sequins. And fur? Well, I once wore an obviously fake fur coat to a reception in Washington around the time of President Clinton's first inauguration, and Steve seemed deeply uncomfortable. I donated the coat to charity soon after.
There's just no getting around it: To be under 60 and wear a mink coat today-even an inherited one and even in New York City, where it gets cold-is to say: "Flamboyance is a good thing. And, oh, I've got money." If only I could laminate a wear a little placard that said, "I'm actually a nice person. This was my Mom's."
And yet, I accepted my inheritance with a hopeful heart. I had always admired my parents' post-World-War II self-assurance. Perhaps the mink would help me cuddle up to that. I am well over 40. It was time to live a little, and finally stop worrying about what others thought.
I commenced my life as a mink owner by donning the coat for the airplane ride home with my husband and children the day after Mother's memorial service. Two hours later, still emotional wreck, I was cursing quietly to myself because I had allowed an armrest to get caught in one of the mink's perfect pockets, and the lining ripped. Damn! This would never have happened to my mother: I was clearly unsuited for the furry life.
Once home, the mink had a funny way of inserting itself into my every conversation. One friend told me how her older sister had appropriated their mother's mink without any family discussion, leaving hurt feelings in the wake of an already sad time. My friend didn't so much want to wear the coat, as to be close to one of the most beautiful things her mother had owned. For many of us, the mink in the closet declared our mothers the ruling monarch of the household. Who wouldn't envy the goddess wrapped in the spoils of the hunt?
I thought of Norma, a dynamic woman who'd once worked in my husband's office. She wore a fur coat to dressy events in the winter without shame or embarrassment. "It's the warmest coat you'll ever have," she said in a warm silky tone when I phoned her. Norma dealt with a furrier on West 29th Street with whom she was on a first-name basis. Why didn't I just come and meet Pete?
As emboldened as I felt by the "see Pete" notation on my calendar, I walked my mink-clad self down a back route to my Brooklyn subway stop that morning, across deserted blocks that people I knew weren't apt to frequent. This is a little silly, I kept thinking. Pete would straighten me out. But Pete wasn't in. Communications had been crossed. And a no-nonsense fur saleswoman took me on. This was definitely not the therapeutic encounter of my hopes and dreams.
"Oh, it's a beautiful coat. It's in beautiful shape. And it looks so very nice on you! What's the problem?" she said as she examined the mink with an experienced hand. "I will move the hooks like so, and put a higher hook up here, and you'll be all ready to go."
"Well, you know," I answered, "I just don't have many, you know, times where I w-will..." I stammered.
"Just wear it!" the woman commanded in a manner not unlike my own mother's, though my mother would have added, "for God's sake."
I ordered a mink headband in the same shade to consolidate my hopes that the mink and I would mate. Weeks, then months, passed. The whole rig stayed at the furrier's through April, when I was finally asked to state my intentions. Did I wish to store the mink all summer for $39.95? I said that sounded like a great idea, and for seven more months, Mom's coat was out of my life.
With the mink in storage, I started to relax about it. (Okay, I did call PETA, where a spokesperson urged me to donate the coat to them for educational purposes, but I wasn't seriously tempted.) As I relaxed, certain images of myself in the coat surfaced. I imagined myself out sledding in the mink with my pink-cheeked children in fresh white, snowy powder, laughing. That could work. I also imagined being out with my husband, walking down Broadway late at night in a biting January wind after seeing a marvelous, uplifting show. That could happen. In fact, my husband seems to have changed his unspoken stance on fur; while I was away for a few weeks, he dreamed that I was leaving him for another man who would let me "wear my mink." Strange how a coat can realign a family system.
Memories of my mother surfaced, too-most of them painful. Once, when I was in college, Mom went to the trouble of sending me some French cologne. When she asked how I was enjoying it, I told her I was using it to kill cockroaches in the tiny kitchen of my apartment. My good-looking mother couldn't turn the steering wheel of a car without clattering three of four gold bracelets. I didn't wear lipstick. I didn't want to be like her.
Becoming a mother myself helped our relationship. Getting older, and realizing how lousy a woman can look without lipstick, brought me closer to her still. I feel blessed that we had about eight years together at the end of her life to nurture those improvements. It's too bad Mom is not around to appreciate-and chuckle over-adjustment to life and with her coat.
I wish I could say that the mink has helped me cast off the fetters of a mousy, timid past, inspired me to flip the bird at political correctness, and allowed me to embrace my femininity without self-consciousness. But the mink has not given me a personality transplant. I'm still the same old person who tends to shrink in the memory of my mother's mink grandness. But I will say this: As I age with the coat, it seems to be expanding my definition of who I thought I could be. We are becoming good and trusty and companions. All I have to do is think of it, and it encompasses me in the most luscious, motherly hug. A hug of complete acceptance. "Whatever you want to do is fine," it whispers. And when I hear that, I find my equilibrium again, and recall what the woman at the furrier's said as I was leaving: "Be happy that you have this! Your mother left you a nice thing."