Monday, December 31, 2012
The Red Coat
It was January, time to break out the electric blanket. I went into the third, unfurnished bedroom and swung open the closet doors. Sitting on the top shelf was my old reliable Sunbeam Electric Blanket.
But my eyes focused on something else. Hanging majestically in that same closet was a ladies royal red jacket, made with the finest wool and an elegant silk lining. I lifted the jacket off the hangar and held it in my arms as gently as I would an infant. I slid my hand into the side pocket and found her recipe for enchiladas, along with a grocery list for the ingredients needed to make them. As I read the familiar writing my heart caught in my throat and I lifted the jacket to see if I could pick up the familiar scent of "her" more than a decade since she last wore it.
Before I even realized it I was sitting on the corner of my bed, coat still in hand, and thought back upon a day fifteen years ago. I had driven my mother out to Missouri so that she might celebrate her 75th birthday with her brother. We had taken my wife to Los Angeles International Airport where she would board a flight to visit her mother in Vietnam. My mom and I would then head east, following old Highway 66 as much as possible; the road that ferried our family to California from Oklahoma in 1952. It was my intention to overnight in the tiny community of Prague, Oklahoma where she grew up, and where her youth resided in golden memory.
We arrived in Prague late in the evening and stopped to rest in a nearby motel. But the next morning found us rested, and hungry. We found a wonderful roadside diner that served farm fresh eggs and biscuits and gravy. The coffee was fresh and hot and the waitress was warm so we set out on the road to yesterday in good spirits.
As we drove slowly through my mother's home town she pointed out the old hospital where I was born, the old mill that ground their wheat into flour, and the dry goods store where she once shopped for the rare things that could not be made at home.
"Turn here" she said and we followed the road back out of town. "And turn right here" she ordered and we followed an unpaved country road for a few miles. After a few miles she raised her hand and pointed out an old and abandoned brick school house. "Even after I married I set off from home and walked Bill and Polly back home from this old school", she said.
Soon we came to a crossroads and she again directed me to turn right. I did so and after going a hundred yards or so she bid me "stop". My eyes followed hers as we gazed upon a gate, now shrouded in wild ivy but one could still see a big letter "H" welded into the center of the gate. We then got out of the car and leaned on the old iron gate. "There", she said, pointing again at an old house. "This is where we lived before the war"..."at least momma and papa and the younger kids did", she whispered. She pointed out the fields where Papa share-cropped from the Holman family, and the old smokehouse where Papa smoked the meats that would see them through the winter.
Turning again, she pointed down the road aways. "Down there's the cabin where your Dad and I and Virgil lived." "But we shared a lot of suppers with mama and papa and the rest of the family, right here". As I looked down the road I could almost see a tall lanky dad and a teen age girl, rustling a toddler up the road for a fried chicken supper. We both stared down that road as if we were staring at the ghostly figures of long ago.
The sense of nostalgia was heightened by the quietude that one can only find in the country. Meadowlarks chirped in the nearby trees and the sun was warm on our backs as we dwelled for a time in the "long ago".
We got back in the car and drove down to the site of the old cabin, a home for a young family but now gone. I used the old dirt path adjacent to the cabin to turn the car around. As I headed back the way we had come, traversing the corrugated old country road, made so by pickup trucks carrying chickens or eggs or hay bales through the winter mud. When we reached the old homestead again I stopped to take a second look. I got out of the car, grabbed my instamatic and took a few pics of the old place.
When I got back in the car my mom sat in the passenger seat, a smile on her lips, but her eyes were gazing far into yesterday. "What are you thinking about, mom?". She just smiled and was silent. After coaching her a little she said "thinking about a red coat that I didn't get and never felt better for it".
She told me about a year when the share crop check was enough to buy the bucket of lard and the bags of flour and sugar and still left enough for a much needed winter coat for her. She told me about how she and Dad has set off for town, to cash the check, buy their commodities, and purchase a lovely red woolen coat she had set her eyes upon during the last trip to town. As they passed the old brick school she saw her brother Floyd hustling the two younger kids back home from school. As they passed they tooted the old horn and mom rolled down the window and scolded Floyd for being out in the cold without a jacket. But she could never be mad at him for long, especially these days, as her younger brother would be leaving for the army soon. The war was taking all the young men those days.
Mom and Dad continued down the road and into town. While my dad cashed the share crop check and gassed up the old truck my mom selected the commodities they needed and dad returned and they paid for their purchases. They loaded everything into the back of the truck, except for a package wrapped in brown paper. My mom carried the package on her lap, a smile on her face as they drove back home.
That night Mom and Dad and Virgil again trod down the road to share a supper with family. Mom came in the door carrying that brown package wrapped in twine. She handed it to her brother Floyd. "What's this, sis?' "You won't know if you don't open it", she said. When Floyd opened the package it held a navy blue P-coat. "That'll keep you warm where ever the army sends you", she smiled.
I never found out what my Uncle Floyd said about this kindness but my mom said she herself had never felt as warm.
After hearing about that story I immediately knew what I'd be getting my mom for Christmas. Mom had always been hard to buy for. If we gave her a fine set of dishes she'd put them in the china cabinet and continue to use the old mixed matched dishes she had owned for decades. The same thing for silverware. When one rustled through mom's cabinets one would find knives and spoons and forks of a mixed breed. Or they may have had the pleasure of drinking from an old Tinker Air Force base engraved spun aluminum cup that made a glass of milk even colder on a hot summer day. She was never much for fancy dresses; instead preferring her mu-mu's for all occasions.
But, when Christmas came I bought my mother the finest royal red coat I could find. It was wrapped in the finest of wrappings and when I presented that beautiful coat to her that winter I thought I would bust out in tears, so fine, and so appropriate was my gift.
When she got ready to go to the store that weekend she started to slip on her old blue corduroy jacket. As soon as I saw her I insisted she wear the regal coat. She said it was much too nice to wear to the grocery store and I told her that nothing was too fine for her to wear anywhere.
To my delight she did indeed begin wearing it out to the grocery store. Sadly, she didn't get to wear it for too many years before she passed to the reward of the blessed.
So, I sit here today, embracing a coat, and remembering a summer day fifteen years ago, along a country road. Perhaps the spirit of giving is emanating from somewhere up there where meadowlarks sing in peaceful solitude. I now feel a bit ashamed that I haven't given away that lovely coat to someone who would treasure it. I think I'll do just that...and be warmed still again by the gift of giving.