Almost without exception, my childhood wardrobe was updated twice a year from the Land’s End catalog. At the beginning of each school year, my Mother would pick out matching sets of jumper dresses and long sleeve shirts, mix and match cotton trousers and crew neck shirts, and consult me on colors. I was going through my surly phase (ages 6 to 15) and insisted on no silly patterns, no bows or ribbons, and absolutely no 95% of all available everything. I ended up with a lot of navy and dark purple.
Seeing as I never grew very quickly, and in general failed to grow very much at all, shoes, coats, hats, and trousers that my Mother bought a size or two too large stayed that way for several years. In fact, the last pair of shoes we bought larger, so I could grow into them, was at age 14. I wore them yesterday with an extra pair of socks, but they’re still 2 sizes larger than my feet.
The only other time I got new clothes was at Christmas. Aunts and Uncles might send a sweater, or pajamas, and my parents always got me colorful socks, and any clothing I’d happened to wear out between Septembers. One year, that item happened to be my winter coat. By the time October rolled around, my wrists were uncovered between my sleeves and gloves, so Mom took me out to try on coats. My coat would probably come from the Land’s End catalog, but I tried some on in person in case we found something that would work without shipping costs.
We only went to The Mall perhaps twice a year, and Mom took me around to all the stores that November. I tried on anything that looked like a possible size match, but the biggest problem was definitely my 13 year old self in an 8 year old sized body. This coat had sleeves much too long, and this one was so puffy my arms couldn’t rest at my sides. This one had a pink lining and was automatically vetoed, and no Mom, it doesn’t matter that you can’t see the lining when it’s zipped. This one has flower buttons, and little ribbon ties around the hood. No, that one is plain brown and ugly. So it went, with nary a coat to be found.
Then suddenly, it was there.
We were passing Eddie Bauer, looking for a Christmas sweater to give my Dad, when I saw THE coat. It was long, ending just above the knee, and a deep cream color I’d never known I needed. It was puffy, but not too puffy, and the hood had a deep ruff of fake fur in a layered grey and brown. It was, without a doubt, absolutely the coat I had to have.
“Mom, I want to try on that coat.”
“The white one.”
“What? White’s a terrible color for a coat.”
“I really really like it. I want to try it on.”
“You won’t like it.”
“I want to try it on.”
“Fine, try it on.”
She pulled it from the hook, as I couldn’t reach anything on an upper rack, and held it out to me as I stripped off my bulky, faded purple coat. I don’t remember if that was the one passed down from from my sister, a teal and purple original of 80’s design, or one of the ones my Mom had picked. My most distinct memory of it was how stiff and scratchy the velcro was. Regardless, I slipped the new coat over my shoulders and slid the zipper up smoothly with an even, pleasing sound. I carefully buttoned each snap in front, then slid the hood up. My reflection in the mirror showed a small but well pleased girl in a cream colored dream that covered her from head to knee. The lining was silky smooth, with knitted cuffs around the wrist, and I’d begun to sweat nearly the moment it was zipped.
I turned to my mother, and I can only imagine the radiant expression on my face. This coat, I knew, was perfection. Her face, I noted, looked much more hesitant.
“So, what do you think about it?”
“I love it, mom. It’s perfect.”
“You don’t even like fake fur.”
“I love it on this coat.”
“White is a terrible color. It’ll get stained and dirty all the time. It won’t stay white.”
“I’ll be really, really careful.”
“It’ll still be dirty.”
“I’ll still love it.”
She looked at me pensively. “How much is it?”
We both peered at the tag, and my every hope crumbled away. $119 might have been the price, or $139. Either way, that was closer to our weekly grocery budget than anything my parents had ever spent on an article of my clothing.
“No.” Said my mother, and we went home.
I tried on a few more coats over the next few weeks, but none seemed to fit. A few were close, but zippers wouldn’t zip, or the hood was much too big. I wore the old one, and came in from recess and after dinner walks each day with a little red line of cold, chapped skin on each wrist.
Then came Christmas day. As per family tradition, my sister and I woke up abominably early and looked through the stockings hung over the fireplace. We read comics, and played with little puzzles and toys bought from the museum shop, while our parents got another hour or so of sleep. We impatiently waited through pancake and scrambled egg making, breakfast eating and coffee making, until the moment of presents arrived.
I looked at each box with my name, and settled on an order to open them, leaving the biggest, and thus most exciting package, for last. I’d suspected its size meant this box held my new winter coat, and when I opened it, I wasn’t…disappointed?
It was big.
It was fluffy.
It was Land’s End.
It was black.
“Well, what do you think?” Asked my mother.
“Oh, umm… thank you. I definitely needed a new coat.”
My father looked at me suspiciously. “What? What’s wrong with it?”
“Nothing, I… it’s definitely…I need a new coat.” I generally try not to lie, unless it’s a matter of kindness, or… humor. I was having trouble figuring out what to say, and I couldn’t quite look at either of them. I had the very alarming feeling that my disappointment might lead to crying, and no 13 year old wants that.
“What?” Said my father, exasperated. “What is that look?”
Sigh. “She wants that white coat. The really expensive one.”
“How much was it?
“What?!? That’s way too expensive!”
They both looked at me.
“This coat is fine for you. It’s a nice coat.”
“You’ll grow to like it. It’s a nice coat.”
“It is a nice coat. Thanks…” I imagined myself wearing it. It was flat black, with a dark navy lining. It looked bulky, and my 13 year old self was becoming self-aware enough to know I didn’t want to look bulky. I imagined myself in it and felt, for perhaps the first time I can recall, ugly. I put it back in the box, and we all wrote quick lists of who had given us what for later thank you notes. And by later, I mean that afternoon.
INSERT your own idea of what my 13 year-old self would term WORLD’S UGLIEST COAT. I’m sure it was fine, just HIDeous.
The day after Christmas, I admit I was still in a bit a funk. I didn’t pay much attention as my mother put me into the car. We were returning a couple of things to the store, she said. When we pulled into downtown, I could see her office building and The Mall.
What is happening? I wondered. The day after Christmas? My parents hate crowds, shopping, and malls. Come to think of it, as an adult so do I… Regardless, what was happening?
“Why are we here?” I asked.
“I told you, we have to return a couple of things.”
“You hate the mall near Christmas…what do we have to return?”
“I’m sending that coat back, we’re going to go look at that white one again.”
“What, but… why?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean why are you sending it back?”
“You really don’t like it.”
Why does that matter? I thought. “Why does that matter?” I said, bewildered. I honestly didn’t think either of my parents would care about whether I liked the look of something, but I knew better than to say that. Then I said it anyway.
“Well, of course I care! That is, well… I thought about it and remembered something.” She parked the car, and I stuffed those suspicious crying feelings deep inside again. They can really get out of hand sometimes. “My mother always took one of us out to buy that year’s present for another one of the sisters, and she always picked your Aunt Rachel to go shopping for me. When I was about your age, she picked out a coat. Now this was the 70’s, and maybe she honestly thought it was nice, but it was orange and brown plaid, and the ugliest thing I’d ever seen. I was horrified, and we couldn’t return it. My mother said it was nice, and I had to wear it everyday for two years, or maybe three until I outgrew it. We didn’t have the money for another. I had to wear it in front of everyone I knew, and it was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen. I saw your face when you opened it, and I remembered what that felt like.”
My feeling started leaking out.
“We’re going to try that coat on again and make sure it fits, and it better be on sale for after Christmas. Oh don’t look at me like that. Why are you crying?”
We sorted ourselves out, and I tried the coat on again. It was a mere 10% off, and that just about dashed my hopes again. I promised to clean it, and be careful with it. I assured my mother I wouldn’t be upset when it got dirt on the nice, cream sleeves and they stained. I was certain, I told her, that I would love it three years from then, and I would keep it until I outgrew it.
We bought the coat.
My father…grumbled. Loudly. At a volume approaching shouting, but he would have disagreed.
My mother told him it was too late, and it had been on sale.
I sat there with my perfect, perfect coat, and hadn’t a care in the world.
The sleeves did get dirty, and eventually stained, but I didn’t care. The fake fur didn’t wash well and clumped up awkwardly. It didn’t matter. I also never outgrew that coat, and it was well worth the $100, because approaching 15 years later, I still have it, and it’s still my main winter coat.
What’s more, every time I put it on, I have a brief moment of suspicious feelings. Of course my parents cared about my 13 year-old self, but do I believe for a moment that in the normal course of things I would have ended up with a different coat? Never!
I get suspicious feelings because I remember what it felt like, to have my mother acknowledge what I was feeling, and deem it more important than a trip to the hated mall the day after Christmas, more important than a squabble with my father, and more important than $40-$60 that really could have been spent elsewhere. Even if I hadn’t loved that coat so much, I still have the memory of my mother deciding my (incredibly baseless…?) concerns were important, and that I should have the right to wear something I didn’t think was horrid.
I could wax on at length, for this is a morality tale, but I’ll leave you with this: Happy holidays, Merry Christmas, happy winter break from school, or hope you’re having a nice Tuesday.
And…if you have a moment soon, where a child in your life is making such a big deal out of nothing, remember: the world of a child is very small. They see the same people, do the same things, and have very little control over their own lives. What you have for lunch isn’t a bother, a big deal, or the least bit frustrating, until you never get to choose what it is.