THE COAT OFF HER BACK

The year I was 16, I entered college where I discovered the true meaning of angst. I’d had a difficult childhood, but no one except a teenager can fully engage in suffering. By the following summer, at 17, I was deep in the thrall of breaking up with my first love. I had become a moaning, weeping, sodden wreck for whom life was worthless. What stretched before me was a vast puddle of lachrymosity. Pathos. Loss. Oh woe was me.

Somewhere along the way, my mother thought a chat with Aunt Kate would help pull me out of the Slough of Despond. She gave me a few bucks for subway tokens and bus-fare and packed me off for lunch in Manhattan with my favorite Aunt.

Even a despairing teenager can’t avoid perking up a little at the prospect of an elegant lunch in New York. On someone else’s dime.

We met in front of the New York public library, our family’s traditional location for liaison. After ritual greetings and appropriately flattering commentary — “You look wonderful, Aunt Kate!” and “So do you, darling!” — we headed to a hotel for lunch.

In my sudden enthusiasm, I pointed out to my aunt that I was still wearing the fake fur coat she had give me many years ago because I loved it that much.

“OH!” she cried. “You’re still wearing that old rag?” And there, in the middle of downtown Manhattan, she pulled the coat off her back and said I had to have it.

“Aunt Kate,” I pleaded. “We are in the middle of 6th Avenue. And it’s the middle of winter. You’ll freeze. We’ll be mowed down by traffic! Can we at least discuss this indoors? Please?”

Acceding to my wishes, as soon as we got to the restaurant, she made me swap coats with her. Hers was nice, even luxurious. Also a fake fur, but plusher and 5 years newer. She wore mine (the one with the torn lining) home. You had to be careful in my family. If you admired something — or accidentally suggested you might like something similar — you would own it.

Spode Tower Pink

Spode Tower Pink

The ultimate example of family caring were the dishes. Blame me. I started it. I bought the dishes at a barn on a back road in Connecticut in the early 1970s. I was poking around a room full of old pottery and turned one over. It was Spode. The markings looked to be late 19th century. Eighty-six pieces, including a chipped sugar bowl and eight demitasse cups minus saucers … and a set of saucers without cups. In pretty good condition. For $30.

Of course I bought them, but they were delicate, so I never used them. They remained in the closet gathering dust. Years passed. One day, my mother admired them. Faster than you can say “Here, they’re yours,” I had those dishes packed and in her car. She loved them, but they were old and, it turned out, valuable. So she put them away and never used them.

One day, Aunt Kate admired them, so Mom gave them to her. Kate then gave my mother her set of bone china for 12 which she didn’t need, the days of dinner parties being long past.

My mother also had no need for a large set, so she gave Aunt Kate’s set of 12 to my brother, who gave my mother his china for six. My mother gave my brother’s dishes to me while Aunt Kate traded my Spode for Aunt Pearl’s old china. Aunt Pearl packed the Spode away in a safe place, because they were old and valuable and she didn’t want to break them.

Twenty years later, Garry and I went to visit Aunt Pearl. She had the Spode, carefully wrapped and boxed. She gave them back. Of course, we never used them. I eventually gave them to the kids, who sold them on eBay. They knew they’d never use them either.

In life you find kindness and love, sometimes in the form of dishes. And there is the coat off your aunt’s back, proffered in the dead of winter in Manhattan.


WEEKLY WRITING CHALLENGE – Honey versus Vinegar

34 thoughts on “THE COAT OFF HER BACK

  1. Pingback: We’ll Ride Together, Australia | Ramisa the Authoress

  2. Pingback: Bessa Can’t Dance | litadoolan

  3. What a wonderful family you have. My parents were very giving. they gave the rare items to relatives and people that, sorry, really did not deserve them. The clue: I got nothing. My dad’s army medals to my cousin, the only silver threepenny piece we had to my brother-in-law (who is a millionaire)

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    • My mother’s family were generous, kind — and poor. My father’s family was a VERY different story.

      My mother died early and ultimately, the family goodies went to everyone except me and my son. I inherited the least, which wasn’t nothing, but damned close. Even my sister-in-law got more. But that’s the way it goes in families. There are so many weird reasons why things turn out the way they do. It would require volumes — long boring volumes — to explain them (if you COULD explain them) — and no one would interested anyhow. I was always very independent. A lot of assumptions were made about me, true and untrue. I think those of us who left to live far away are resented on some level. I’ve seen it repeatedly in families. I try not to go and brood on it because it makes me mad. I don’t need the aggravation.

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  4. Your Aunt Kate sounds like a gem. Every family should have an Aunt Kate. As for teenage angst, “No one knows” (Dion).

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    • Aunt Kate looked like Katherine Hepburn and was my favorite aunt. She was my mother’s oldest sister, thus the family matriarch. She was smart, very into fashion, modern with an underlay of “old country.” She believed in having fun … and personal honor. I wish I’d spent more time with her while I could.I’ll always regret the time I missed.

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  5. Sweet.

    And members of my family gave away a truck-load of hand-worked rosewood and mahogany furniture when they sold the old family home. To strangers. Without talking to anyone else in the family. That, unlike what you’ve written about, was not generosity. That was idiocy.

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    • There are lots of possible reasons for that. Maybe they wanted to avoid the inevitable squabble as the sibling joust for possession of the goodies. Or bad planning, not talking about it in advance and then there’s no time and they just got rid of it. Or they thought no one would want the old stuff. It’s hard to know. Did you ever ask why?

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      • Oh, I know the answer to that. They had no idea of the value of those nor did they understand the work that my grandfather and father put into getting them made. We were very angry about it at the time – I was a kid then but my love for wood had already taken hold. They were taken by surprise with our reaction. Like I said they were clueless. Anyway, my wife and I have collected furniture from the days gone by, things that were confined to some dark corner but luckily discovered and restored. Much joy. Maybe our nephews will grow fond of them as they grow up. Maybe not.

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        • My mother also tossed a lot of fine furniture. She thought it was dark and old-fashioned. By then, I didn’t want it anyhow — no room — but to her, antiques were just “somebody else’s junk.”

          I remember we had a lamp in the house that had belonged to my maternal grandmother. Quite literally the ONLY thing of hers that had survived. While my Aunt Pearl (youngest of the sisters) was visiting, she asked my mother “Why are you still keeping that awful old thing? Sentimental value?”

          It got thrown out. That was the mentality. It wasn’t personal. They wanted to get rid of the past, not save it.

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    • I was a little shocked when they sold it … then I realized they were right. There was no point in hanging onto it for another generation. It lived in a box. NO ONE would use it. Ever. At least a collector might appreciate it.

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    • Or, hopefully, displayed by somebody. Because I bought the set in 1972 and it was 2002 when it was sold. It lived in a box for all those years. I don’t think they got enough for it, though. I kept the sugar bowl.

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  6. Nice ring around the family but isn’t it funny how we all “save” the special things for an occasion when in fact, who is more special than our family?

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    • I have adopted a more sensible policy because otherwise, one’s house becomes a mausoleum of stuff too good to be used.

      If I won’t use it, I re-home it or sell it. It has helped de-clutter somewhat. And everything (almost) is in use.

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      • I am in the daunting process of exactly this. I am so enamored by the “tiny house’ trend…..but what about my collections ….a conundrum !

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        • Collections are a bit of a stopper. I think I couldn’t move because no matter how hard I try, I can’t give it all up. I don’t think a tiny house would work for me. Where would I put the computers? The paintings? The photos? The huge TV? The movie collection? The 250 dolls?

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