When my parents moved to florida seven years ago my mother gave me her beaver coat. She asked me first if I thought I would wear it and I responded tentatively - well, yes, maybe . . . . IT was after all nearly 25 years old and while it had been a beautiful coat in its day, as my mother defensively reminded me, the fashions of the late '40's were hardly those of New York in the early ' 70's. Cut very full with narrow shoulders and a small collar it looked as if it were designed by Omar the Tentmaker, and I imagined myself prowling the sidewalks of New York like an embarrassed bear that had strayed from the wilderness. Furthermore I had moral reservations about taking it as I have always deplored the practice of slaughtering animals to glamourize the backs of women.
But I took the coat. Its ultimate appeal to me was because it had belonged to my mother. I remembered her in that coat ever since I was a child, its soft, fuzzy texture as I snuggled up against her and stroked the fur. I found to my surprise that whenever I wore the coat it gave me a feeling of well-being, even of security, as if I were protected not only from the cold but from life. It was like a suit of armor shielding me from the world.
Nevertheless I did not take very good care of the coat. Regarding it as an imminent discard with one foot in the Salvation Army bin, I did not bother to have performed upon it the extravagant niceties one usually lavishes on fur, like cleaning and glazing. As a result the fur lost much of its luster, and the storms into which the coat ventured wore the fur into a matted but still functional mange.
Last fall I had reason to regret my neglect for I suddenly needed the coat to perform a very special service. The final months of my first pregnancy were to take place in the winter, and my husband and I agreed it would be foolish to buy an enormous, unreusable winter coat just for that purpose when my mothe's old beaver coat was of sufficiently ample proportions to fit two very pregnant women within its cozy embrace.
When we took the coat out of storage that fall it was no longer a joke, and we examined it with seriousness and respect. Ruing the state of disrepair into which it had fallen we concluded it could just make it through the winter, and I busily and guiltily set to work mending its tattered lining and reuniting its separated pelts. I felt like an Eskimo woman for whom fur is not a luxury but a necessity to get one through the winter. And it did. It took me through February and into March when fortunately I needed it no longer, because the coat was literally falling apart from exhaustion.
Wearing the coat those months, my feelings about it intensified. while the coat had always brought me close to my mother, now it actually seemed an extension of her presence, as if I, in the process of becoming a mother myself, was being transformed. The coat was not just a coat but a legacy of motherhood that she had passed on to me. Just as she had once sheltered me in the warmth of her body her coat was now sheltering me and her grandchild, almost as if it were a second womb. My mother, when she bought the coat in 1948, could not forsee the use to which it would finally be put, nor could I and my unborn baby ever fully appreciate the special way in which we were kept warm that winter.