Advent Windows of Memory, December 13

The Sixth Window:  Scottsdale, Arizona, December 13, 2011

When my mother died in 2010, my sister and I did a cursory cleaning out of her things.  We went through the dresser and closet and donated boxes of her clothes and shoes to charity.  The next year, however, was harder.  Her house was up for sale and we had to go through everything that remained.

I was sorting through the back of the closet in her bedroom when I discovered an old garment bag.  “Oh! Mom’s mink stole,” I said to my sister.  I pulled it out, unzipped the bag, and there it was—an elegant 1960s wrap, light-colored fur, still scented by Virginia Slims and Jean Nate.

I buried my face in the pelt and choked back tears.

It was not only that I missed my mother.  But I also remembered when she got the mink.  It was one Christmas in the mid-1960s, I do not recall exactly which year.  All the presents had been opened, toys scattered about.  And that is when my father announced, “Oh, wait.  There’s one more.”

He brought a box out from hiding and gave it to my mother.  He looked so happy, boyish really, having kept a great secret.  The gift was beautiful, topped with a large golden bow.  My mother looked wary as she unwrapped, unsure of what the package would hold.  She lifted the lid.  She looked up, and held the box for all of us to see. A mink stole.

I gasped.  It was the most elegant thing I’d ever seen, so soft and inviting.  Surely, we must be rich that my father would buy such an amazing present for her.  Someday, just maybe, someone might give me a gift just like that.

My mother stared at my father.  “I wanted bedroom slippers,” she said flatly.  “I know,” he said.  “But I got you a mink.”  Her face turned red, she started to cry, threw the box to the floor, and ran to their bedroom.  My father followed, leaving three bewildered children abandoned by the Christmas tree.

No child ever really understands her parents’ marriage.  I cannot pretend to know what happened between my mother and father, what painful events culminated in the mink under the tree.  All I know is that it was the unwanted present.  It represented some loss to my mother, some trust broken, some hope dashed.  She hated it.  I couldn’t understand.

Eventually, she wore it.  Even as the events that led up to the angry Christmas morning remain a mystery to me, so do the events of reconciliation.  Whatever meaning it bore, the mink just became part of her wardrobe.  There it was—that wrap—in pictures throughout the 1960s and 1970s—of parties and dances and dinners.  My parents, always smiling at the camera, posed with their cigarettes and martini glasses, standing in groups of friends, on every formal occasion, my mother in the mink.

I once asked my mother why she had cried on that Christmas morning.  “I didn’t think any of you kids would remember that,” she said.  “I wanted bedroom slippers.  Your father didn’t listen to me.  I never wanted a mink.”  And that was it.  She never spoke of it again.

Not all holiday memories are good ones, nor can memories reveal the unknown dimensions of another person’s story.  But even the sad memories form who we are, and such memories often return to haunt us during this time of year.  I think we learn to hold them all, grateful for many memories of full and complex lives.  Memory, however hard to embrace at times, is a grace that connects the past and present, the dead and living.

The mink is in my closet now.  It still hangs in the same garment bag.  It is very Mad Men, all 1960s chic.  I feel odd wearing it, however, not because of the memory or the tears.  But because tastes and ethics have changed so over the years—mink definitely is not p.c., especially among my mostly liberal friends.  I will probably take it out of the closet though, just for a visit.  And to say thanks for memories.


Advent: Windows of Memory, December 2
Advent Windows of Memory, December 7
Awakening or Bad Religion?
Advent: Windows of Memory, December 3
  • Lauren Gough+

    I too remember an unwanted gift from my father to my mother. I never quite understood it either. But you are quite right about we never understand the relationship of our parents. I am glad you shared your memory. It helped me remember mine and soften the judgement I have often heaped on my now long-dead parents. But most of all, it helps me remember how important it is to buy the gift the other wants–not what I want to give.

    • Edward White

      Your reflections are a real Christmas gift Diana, This one gave me permission to reflect on many bittersweet memories of our family dduring my childhood. My mom aand dad were very loyal to each other even though they never understood each other. Cheers and God bless, Ed White

  • Ann

    My experience is like your mother – my parents would give me dolls when I wanted cowboy boots. There is something about not being heard or the other seeing someone they want to see rather than you, I think. Go ahead and wear it or do as I did with my godmother’s stole that I inherited – give it to a little theater group.

  • pat parker

    My dad gave my mom many gifts that received the same response. He always kept trying…until after her birthday the year he died. He gave her a lovely hand-tooled leather purse that birthday; she all but threw it at him and he declared, “I will never buy you another gift!” So sad that he died a few short months later without having broken that declaration. I often wondered if she thought about that over the years…for she did miss him terribly.

  • Ann

    Christmas turned into a test of “do you love the real me?” — so sad

  • michele bond

    My mother must have said a dozen or more times over the years “I want you to have my mink coat.” It meant so much to her. When she died I brought it home, tried to wear it a few times. It just wasn’t me, and I didn’t know what to do. Finally I found someone to make it into teddy bears, one for each of my children, and one for my niece. The bears have medallions around their necks that read, “Grandma loved you very much.” I think my mom would be a little disappointed, yet pleased.

    • Ann Deupree

      My story is much like michele’s; a mink coat my mother treasured though I’m not sure who gave it to her. When she gave it to me, I couldn’t bear to wear it. My solution was a donation to a near-by theater group, along with the mink hat. I’v puzzled over my feelings about that mink coat, knowing my mother wanted me to treasure it as she did. Perhaps it’s a symbol of our wanting to please someone we love so deeply, while recognizing the differences in our value systems. What wasn’t clear was how much of that we communicated to one another.

  • suzi

    Memories. They live in a different place illuminated by light tinted through the years; what we bring up to examine isn’t always reliably the whole truth. It is all we have, though. A turn, to look through the window of time from a different perspective, and we see your father’s joyful anticipation turned into confusion or hurt – your mother didn’t listen to him, either. This is the state in which most of us live, this curious place between what we see and what is and, like a marriage, we make it work.

    The story-teller in me has already formed a rich history to what culminated that Christmas between your parents … I embrace curious places. ;)

  • senior searcher

    Diana, my husband’s stepmother had a mink stole, and after her death, it somehow fell into my hands. Since I would never wear it, and not knowing what else to do with it, I gave it to my daughter for her second-hand clothing store. She sold it for $50 to a woman who later returned to say that she had lined her cat’s bed with it. The cat loved it, and I imagine it is still serving the cat, or the next generation of cats in that family.
    Life changes, our values change, or environments change, and we all try valiantly to keep up with it. Thank God that God never changes.