The Essay is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
Jillian looked at me in shock as I walked into the house holding my mother’s mink coat. My daughter, the vegetarian, did not understand how I could have accepted it. She equated it to wearing death.
How ironic that after years of arguing with my mother over the coat, I had finally accepted it from her with a satisfied grin, only to face my daughter’s horror. Once again, sandwiched between the generations.
Wearing fur was foreign to Jill. When I was a child, I thought nothing of seeing a woman in a fur coat. I have a picture of my grandmother walking down the street with a fox’s head and torso around her neck. Those who could afford fur in those days could brave the Canadian elements in a garment that was light in weight and exceptionally warm. Before the advent of down-filled coats, fur was the best protection against frigid winters.
I remember sleepy trips home on snowy nights, lying without a seat belt across my mother’s lap in the front seat of our sedan, rubbing my face in her seal coat. The silky texture swayed across my face like the soothing comfort of warm water.
Every so often, when home alone, I would steal into the closet and nuzzle my face in the coat. Once or twice I tried it on, and stood on my toes pretending I was a princess.
The fur business was part of my family. My uncle was a furrier and a labour organizer in the furriers’ union. It was a proud and skilled profession. He gave me a white rabbit-fur muff to keep my hands warm when I was 5. When I was a teenager, he gave me a suede hat with fur trim. The wind blowing up my miniskirts and through my fishnet stockings counterbalanced the warmth around my head, though I had trouble hearing through the hat and seeing around the trim.
In 1969, for my 16th birthday, my parents gave me an outlandish, oversized, striped brown-and-white muskrat coat with big brass buttons and a brass link belt. My tactless and feeble grandmother whacked me with her cane and told me I looked like a bear.
Then came the years of protest against wearing fur. I came to understand the cruelty of killing animals, especially in an age when man-made materials kept you just as warm. Never prone to extremes, I was baffled by the protests that inflicted harm: Throwing red paint at people was going too far, I thought. Encouraging violence against people to discourage violence against animals seemed over the top. But I got it; it was an age of protest.
I try to see both sides of any argument. These are personal choices. Leather shoes are okay for some and not for others; eating meat is okay for some and not for others. Is it all right to raise beef for food and leather, yet wrong to raise a ranch mink for warmth? I stopped wearing fur. I didn’t stop eating meat. I didn’t abandon my love of leather goods.
My mother bought this coat in the 1980s, when she was trying to rebuild her life after a financial misfortune, while at the same time dealing with my father’s illnesses. Diabetes, heart disease and ministrokes had left him worn down.
At 58, Mom opened a second-hand store in Markham, Ont. She and Dad gathered cast-off clothes from wealthy homes in Toronto’s Forest Hill and Post Road areas on Sundays, then picked over, priced and sold them in the store. It was hard physical work. Mom was the “front” man. Dad helped as much as he could, retreating to a cot in the basement when he needed to rest.
Sensitive to cold, and wanting to maintain her dignity, Mom bought a fur coat at The Bay. Family connections to the fur industry were long gone, so she satisfied herself with the formerly unthinkable retail. The coat was not of the finest quality, but it gave her a sense of accomplishment. She wore it as a badge of survival. The store closed after my father died, when Mom was 70.
Each year, she managed to migrate to Florida. The coat went in and out of storage. She needed warmth, it needed cold. Year after year, she asked me to take it, but I always refused, suggesting she give it to someone else. “You’ll appreciate it when it’s cold next winter,” she would warn. “Wear it to walk the dog.”
I had always been that overdressed kid with a scarf around my mouth arriving at school in a sweat. Perhaps not taking the coat was an act of rebellion as an adult for my inner child.
But one year I changed my mind after coming to the poignant realization that it was her way of looking after me when she was gone.
After years of mother/daughter friction, I had to finally and unconditionally accept her love and allow her to mother me in her own way.
At first, I couldn’t imagine putting it on and stepping out the front door even though the days of being splattered with red paint appear to be over. It just felt strange to me. The coat hung in the closet, and went in and out of storage, until my mother was gone.
One week after she died on Christmas Day, I put on the coat to go for a walk in the snow. It was warm and light. It felt right to wear it.
After a couple of years, I had it remodelled. My daughter slipped it on and broke into a smile.
We share the coat now. Occasionally, we both rub our faces in the fur and think of my mother’s love still keeping us warm.
Lynn Pearson lives in Toronto.