Old coat, new adventures

I bought the oversized coat in the odd green hue mainly because of the price - 70 percent off. Therefore, the stylistic details of the mostly wool coat were proportionately reduced in importance. I dialed the toll-free number in the catalog and days later, a box arrived on my doorstep.

The coat looked disappointingly small inside the box. But once I freed it from a shroud of cellophane and gave it a shake, it sprang to life. As I slipped it on, the coat fell around me with the warmth of a blanket with sleeves. I studied it in the mirror. It was definitely different.

The color might have been tactfully called "sage," but it reminded me of the walls of a waiting room in a dentist's office where soft-rock music played against the sound of the distant drill of a smile under repair.

The coat stretched down to my ankles with a fullness that promised a little sway with every step. The sleeves, a bit too long, suggested humility, and the lack of serious tailoring provided a cozy, tentlike fit to accommodate the bulkiest of sweaters. There were no buttons or hardware to secure the front, allowing it to billow dramatically in a breeze.

I imagined it was the kind of coat Ingrid Bergman would have wanted around her on a cold day when she was unexpectedly caught between a good man and the love of her life.

Although I know little about fashion, it seems as much about innovation provoking attention in hopes of starting a trend as it is about modesty or protection from the elements. While I've never aimed to be a trendsetter, I hoped that my warm, sensible coat might be different enough to be deemed stylish.

At first, it drew compliments and questions about where I'd found such an unusual coat. Even total strangers would utter a quick, "Nice coat," in passing. Reinforced by the attention, I wore it with an unfashionable frequency and for more winters than I'm willing to admit. Eventually, its fibers grew limp, the color faded, and its power to provoke comments passed.

Last winter, I called the coat into special service for my daughter Jennifer, who was going to Europe. "Mom," she said, "I really need a coat - a warm one that I don't have to worry about." There was only one coat that met the criteria.

After falling in love with Europe, Jennifer announced plans to move there. She returned to California, packed her household goods - including the green coat - into 26 boxes, and shipped them to us for storage in New Orleans, right before hurricane Katrina.

With our city in ruins, we figured Jennifer's packages were somewhere in a post office, probably under water, but there was nothing to be done about it. Jennifer moved to Amsterdam while my husband and I became refugees.

Three months later, we returned home to pick up the pieces of our lives as well as the boxes at the post office that had escaped flooding. With the arrival of autumn, Jennifer e-mailed: "Mom, it's getting cold over here. When you have time, could you send a coat?"

I opened nearly a dozen boxes before finding the green coat crammed into an unexpectedly small one. I pulled it out and gave it a shake. There were mud stains around the hem, and the wrinkles from months of confinement looked like a plaid of random creases. After a trip to the dry cleaners, I folded it into another box and popped it in the mail.

Jennifer's e-mail response came a few weeks later: "Thanks, Mom, but I forgot to tell you - the green coat is too long for me. But it's OK. It reminds me of you."

I wondered which of its main characteristics she had in mind: too big, old, or 70 percent off. Suddenly feeling a special kinship with the coat, I replied: "Well, just make sure it has a few adventures."

"OK!" she answered.

I've since relearned the lesson to be careful what you ask for, even in jest. It seems the coat has seen her through a number of chilling adventures.

On a recent trip to Vienna, the train broke down. Jennifer and the coat spent a cold night drifting on and off trains and in and out of stations. On the way to Prague, a piece of a building fell and smashed the hood of the cab she was riding in. Most recently, she e-mailed from Copenhagen reporting riots and trying to reassure us: "If you hear anything on the news, no worries, I'm fine."

I hear many parents claiming to live vicariously through their children. I seem to be living vicariously through a coat. But I no longer imagine the old wrap enjoying an adventure. Instead, I imagine it serving as armor, wrapped around my daughter like a pair of protective arms.

I'm sure vicarious service falls way off the fashion radar. But who knows, maybe it's just odd enough to spark a trend.

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