That was the Christmas when I learned that my mother was a person, too. This was only a unique concept because I was in my early teens, just fresh from junior high, with the point of view common to the age group. The world began and ended with me. The important questions of the day were:
“Did my hair look okay?”
“Were my clothes cool enough?”
“Could I get through the day without saying or doing something so stupid the whole school would notice?”
I usually thought of Christmas in those terms as well. I was focused on my wants and desires. It was hard to be a teen at Christmas. There wouldn’t be any surprises from Santa. I was too old for that. But I knew my parents weren’t prosperous enough to give me the kind of gifts I’d seen at a friend’s house: skis, a stereo, go-go boots.
That is why the whole event was so amazing to me, and significant enough to catch my attention and cause a shift in my view of the world.
We’d gone shopping in the “city”. It was a two-hour drive, but it was the closest community to ours with stores where you could buy the items we usually got only through mail order. Plus, my aunt lived there. She and my mother were close in age, and we visited them, or they visited us, at least once a month.
We were in a department store looking for Christmas dresses for my sisters and I when I heard my mother exclaim to my aunt, “Oh, Lila, feel this coat!” We all came over to inspect it. It was a truly wonderful thing. It was deep navy pile, but unlike most of the late Sixties fake fur, this felt like the real thing. It had a subtle, lustrous glow, and the plush-ness of the nap was unlike any other garment on the rack.
Mama pulled it off the hanger and slipped into it, letting her aging plaid car coat slip to the floor. She snuggled the collar up around her cheeks, pushed her hands deep into the pockets folding it around her like a fashion model. Stepping up to the mirror, she did several half-turns, admiring the way the color complemented her complexion, and practically cooing about the sensuous feel of the fabric.
Without a doubt, it was one terrific coat. She looked good in it, it was different than anything else in the store, and she really did need a new coat. It was Christmas, after all; why not get it?
One hundred dollars–that’s why. The price tag, usually the first thing consulted when we were shopping, had been overlooked in the excitement of the beauty and luxury of the coat. She gasped, took it off, and replaced it on the hanger. As she returned it to its place among the less worthy wraps, I saw her hands linger on the pile for a final caress.
But, my real mother quickly emerged from the reverie, as she briskly gathered her things from the floor, with a laughing comment on how impractical it would be to own such a coat, and how the current jacket was certainly good for at least one more season, probably two. And hadn’t we better get a move on so we’d get home before it was too late?
However when she dressed again in that woven green plaid coat, with the three-quarter sleeves, knit cuffs, and shawl collar, it seemed so bland, so outdated, and, so, so practical that I was conscious for the first time at how adept she was at accepting her circumstances, and making the best of the inevitable. Her uncomplaining way of going about the business of being the mother of eight children on a family dairy-farm budget had never seemed remarkable until now. I wanted her to buy the coat. I wanted her to own it. Whenever any of us had needed something, glasses, orthopedic shoes, dental work, even just a bicycle, my parents always made it happen. I hadn’t been aware of how they did it. They just always somehow figured out the way. Surely they could figure out some way to buy this coat.
When we’d returned home from shopping that night, my mother had told my dad about it. She wasn’t hinting, she just told him all kinds of things like that. We all agreed with her that it was a fantastic coat, and she really did look nice in it. But, as she pointed out, dismissing the subject with the finality of the one who made Christmas happen at our house, and balanced the checkbook, it was much too expensive. She hadn’t reckoned on true love.
I realize now that the cost of the coat probably represented a substantial proportion of the entire Christmas budget, and so was out of the question. But, the Saturday before Christmas, my aunt and uncle came for a visit. While she distracted my mother on a pretext in the bedroom, we were instructed to take a large wrapped box from the back seat of their car and hide it under the Christmas tree, way in the back. The tag said, “To the Welch Family”, but my uncle confided in us older ones that it was The Coat.
She was a hard person to give to. She seemed not to need anything, but could always choose the right thing for someone else. Every holiday season, our house was filled with amazing culinary feats: hand-dipped chocolates, peanut brittle, cinnamon rolls, donuts, fruit cake. This bounty was started in early November so the giving could begin on time.
First, a box was filled for her little brother, the Air Force pilot, often stationed overseas. The next box went south to her parents who wintered in Arizona to ease grandma’s health. We had hordes of visitors who were always treated. Then, the culminating event on Christmas Eve, when she prepared plates with a sampling of everything, covered them with plastic wrap, handed them over to us to carry carefully to the car.
We stopped at the homes of widows, and at least one never-married man whose tiny house I’d passed on the school bus for years without realizing it was inhabited until I was big enough to help with the Christmas gifts. We always gave a plate to a family whose mother was so crippled with arthritis that I never saw her except on Christmas Eve when I slipped into her living room behind my mom, and listened as my mother carried on a cheerful conversation with a woman so bent and twisted I couldn’t look at her. We celebrated Christmas by doing Christ-like things for people who couldn’t do for themselves.
By the time we got home on Christmas Eve, the chores were done, my dad was in the house and we could act out the Nativity before having some fruitcake and milk and going to bed. But the glow in our home was magnified by my memory of the brightness she took into those other houses.
Well, Christmas morning finally came. We had opened nearly every present but the big box. She’d seen it, but assumed it was a game from some other aunts. We urged her to open it, but she passed it over to my sister, “Oh, one of you kids open it. I’ve opened my presents.”
She had; but they were so insignificant that now I cannot recall a single one. Probably a new slip, some cherry chocolates, a plaster hand-print from a first-grader—these were the typical things we ended up giving to the person who “didn’t need anything but kids to stop quarreling.” We handed the big box right back to her with a chorus of insistence that should have been a tip-off.
She tore the paper from the box; it was apparent now that it was NOT a board game. The edges of the box were taped shut, but the name of the store was printed on the outside. Suddenly, she looked confused, her fingers began to fumble with the cardboard. She stood up and dropped the box onto the couch as the lid came free, and I could hardly believe the look on her face as she drew the coat out of the tissue wrappings.
She squealed, “Oh Lynn! It’s my coat!” She turned to him, her eyes shining with incredible delight. Her hands were trembling as she pushed her arms into the sleeves, drawing it up around her shoulders.
“Here, feel this—isn’t it fantastic?” She stepped over to my dad and held out her arm. “Oh, thank you, I love it, love it, love it!”
Or something like that—I don’t remember her exact words except for her initial outburst to my dad. But more significantly, I remember what she did not say. There was no mention of “Oh, you shouldn’t have” or “It’s too much money” or “I don’t need a new coat”. She simply accepted this gesture of love from my father. He had found something she truly wanted, and he generously gave it to her. And she graciously received it.
I’m sure that many times, my father had given my mother gifts, but this was the first time I had been conscious of it. It was the first time I’d been aware of them interacting as two sweethearts. I suddenly saw them as individuals, and not merely the support system for my life.
Except for cooking dinner, she wore her glorious coat the rest of that day. And each time she wore it anywhere, she radiated, not just because it was a good color on her, but because every time she put it on, the pure joy of that Christmas moment seemed to me to be repeated, and I knew my mom was a real person, and that my dad loved her.
The EndPublished in