An Old Unclaimed Overcoat Teaches New Warmth

THERE is an overcoat I'm apt to choose when it's cool and I'm heading out for a walk. It's a soft navy blue with unusual pleated cuffs. It fits me well. At first, I was most uneasy about wearing it. You see, I have absolutely no idea how it got into my closet!

One day I came across it hanging there waiting for me. No, my wife knew nothing about it. I even went so far as to check with a friend at church. I could have sworn I once saw him wearing it. Could I possibly have taken it by mistake in the cloakroom after a service? Again no, he fully assured me, it was not his.

The mystery remains unsolved. From time to time, I wonder sheepishly if someone will come up to me and identify it as I enjoy its warmth on one of my walks!

My love for this coat increases as I wear it. In fact, this ''stranger'' has become my friend. I have come to think of its unknown owner with growing gratitude. Actually, I consider the coat on lease to me and, whether or not the ''lease'' becomes abruptly terminated, the warmth I feel will continue to have special meaning. This old ''friend'' continues to shape my thinking every time we make contact with each other.

The navy-blue overcoat has played a number of roles in its growing history. It hangs appreciatively in my front hall closet, sharing a space with a camel's-hair duffel, a black parka, a green tweed, and a gray German trench coat. Colorful company! Yet why is it that when the doorbell rings at some inopportune moment -- when I'm too distanced from my housecoat -- I always reach for the navy blue?

Once I was wearing it in a high wind as I stood with my little niece on a touchline, watching a rugby football game. The coat opened up to include the child in its generous embrace. She was delighted to nuzzle up inside it, out of the wind.

And then there was the time I lent it to a student of mine from Kenya. He had come over ill-equipped to weather a Toronto winter. I had noticed him shivering in the foyer after church and offered it to him on the spot. The student returned the coat dutifully and gratefully before heading back to the tropics.

It actually crossed my thought the other day, when I considered my ample selection of overcoats, that I might donate the navy blue to a charity. I thought of the warmth that coat would give to some underprivileged stranger.

But something other than mere selfishness held me back. I reminded myself that this was the coat I wore to my furnaceman's wedding. And this was the coat that affectionately covered my wife's sleeping form as I gently draped it over her one night after the heat failed.

But an overcoat does more than protect one from low temperatures.

As a Welsh Canadian, and unlike my compatriot ''snowbirds,'' I accept summer, knowing that neither rise in temperature nor passage of time can mar the distinct relationship I enjoy with my navy-blue companion. It is always teaching me new warmth. It is no longer a stranger to my closet, although its mystery goes unsolved and its destiny continues unfulfilled.

And I always experience a wave of regret at having to hang up that coat when the spring mildness begins at last to come upon us. But, who knows, this year I may still be given the excuse to wear it in May!

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