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.