For women of her time and place, a mink coat was the ultimate status symbol. Whatever sufferings these Holocaust survivors had endured, during either the war or the nights and days of their new lives in America, the fur coat, trite as it may have been to some, was a mighty symbol of security. In my mother’s ease, this security did not extend to very many material objects. She permitted herself few comforts, walking long distances to save pennies, forgoing the bus even when the groceries were heavy and the weather unfriendly, working in a quickly darkening room rather than “wasting the light,” and rarely eating anything when it was fresh and tempting — she preferred to wait until the family had finished to see what was left over. And, when it came to her wardrobe, her everyday clothes had seen far too many washings and pressings. Making do was a philosophy of life for my mother.
My parents came to America in 1951. Right from the beginning they worked in a variety of jobs and, finally, in their own business, often fourteen hours a day, seven days a week. Much as we four children labored to awaken them to the American practice of taking a summer vacation, it never worked. To close up the store, to abandon their comfortable apartment, to go sleep in strange beds and be at the mercy of restaurants (to them “restaurant” was a four letter word), was “mishigas,” craziness. It was widely known among their circle of immigrant friends that restaurants served all manner of “chazerai,” slop worthy only of pigs, often spoiled, from kitchens which would ruin your appetite had you the misfortune to enter them. And special holidays, like Mother’s or Father’s day, don’t even ask! These were the times when the worst of the “chazerai” was served to people who took their parents out in order to poison them and get the “yirisheh,” inheritance, sooner. No. this sleeping and eating in the streets was not one of the Americanizations adopted by our family.
My parents too often responded to my Americanized needs with their party line: “Vos noch darfst die? What else do you need? You have a roof, a bed and potatoes.” Little did they know the list that I had formulated. I needed so many things which they dismissed as “narischkeit,” nonsense. I gladly would have traded my “plenty,” as they saw it, for a leaky cabin in South Haven. Michigan one summer weekend, a sleeping bag on a camp-out in the woods, or a cheeseburger with the works and a cherry coke at any Howard Johnson’s, anywhere. So many American symbols of arrival were viewed with suspicion in our family that it was quite startling when sometime in the “sixties my mother began admiring and expressing interest in the mink coats of other women in my parents’ circle. Their social life was limited to visiting back and forth at friends’ homes, weddings and bar mitzvahs (bat mitzvahs were as yet uncommon in their milieu) and the one or two dances held each year by the “greeneh” newcomers’ organizations. So what was this sudden burning interest in a mink? Children were not asked their opinions in our family and before I knew it my mother had a richly hued full length mink coat with a large shawl collar and, best of all in my eyes, exquisite rhinestone buttons.
It looked lovely on her, made her feel like a queen, and was the perfect just-below-the-knee length which fit the short hemlines of the time. To my mother it was such an “oitser [treasure]” that she rarely wore it, saving it for only the most special of occasions, and then, guarding it like a hen her chicks. Having never had her name or initials embroidered into the lining as some women did, she lived in constant fear of the coat being mistakenly, if not purposely, taken. So, when she finally did wear it, it was like having a baby all over again. No daycare for this baby; the coat never saw the interior of a cloak room. Either she held it, sat with it, or, if moved to dance, circled only within a small radius of her mink —and even then her eyes never left it. In my mind, it was an albatross, but to her, it was a beloved symbol of how far she had come in the new world.
In 1984, my dear mother died. The question of what to do with her precious coat arose, and my sister and I discussed its disposition. It was by then some twenty years old and quite outmoded, so neither one of us rushed to claim it. We thought about having it remodeled and, as I was living a somewhat bohemian lifestyle and took forever to deal with such things, we both agreed that my sister would take the coat and have it redone.
Five years passed and I had pretty much forgotten the coat until the strong anti-fur lobby aroused both my sympathy and my memory of my mother’s mink. It was with a youngest sibling’s great pleasure that I discovered that I was not the only procrastinator in the family. After the most casual of inquiries about alterations, my sister had hung the coat in an extra closet and promptly forgotten it. When I asked her about it, she admitted that she had decided against remodeling the coat and probably would never use it. I put the coat on and noticed that something had changed since the last time I tried it on. In recent years I had grown partial to retro styles, and the clothing that was popular when I was young held great charm for me. The coat was definitely dated; too full, too short, with too large a shawl collar. It was just “too” — if June Cleaver had ever owned a mink coat, this surely would have been it. I decided that I loved it. Would I wear it?. . . now that was a tougher question.
My sister graciously offered me our mother’s coat and I accepted. However, when I got it home, I had trouble deciding when and where I would indeed wear it. I felt somewhat uncomfortable wearing fur and knew that I couldn’t wear it into the city where the anti-fur activists were sure to pounce on me. Would they understand my dilemma when I explained that I didn’t purchase the coat; rather I wore it because it had been my mother’s and wearing it made me feel closer to her? I doubled it. Torn between the desire to wear my mother’s coat and my own confused feelings, I undertook a mission of stealth and decided to wear it under cover of darkness on the late night walks I took with my husband.
The winter was brutal — the coldest in many years. Still, despite the cold, I could forgo a hat and raise the shawl collar around my head, feeling enveloped and hugged. How wonderfully toasty I felt. No coat had ever kept me so warm before—and I knew that it was not just the fur, but the comfort of knowing that it had been worn by my mother. I had worn the coat two or three times before I thrust my hand into the pocket late one night as we were about to walk out the door. I felt something in the pocket and stepped back into the light to see what I had discovered: a yellowing book of matches from the Hilton Hotel in Chicago—where my parents lived—and a small wear-softened square of paper. I unfolded the paper and recognized my mother’s distinctive European handwriting. Tears sprang to my eyes. She had carefully written down her name, “Mrs. P. Nuss, her address and phone number. Why in the world. . . and suddenly it came to me. She had always feared the loss of her precious mink and since her name was nowhere on it, she had inscribed it on this little piece of paper, hoping the note would help the coat find its way home if ever they were separated.
It was eleven o’clock on a cold winter night and I stood in the hallway crying tears of confusion, pain, and joy. I was swaddled in my mother’s mink coat, clutching to my face a scrap of paper bearing her precious writing which she had held in her own hands who knew how many years ago. I was flooded with love and longing for her; and with something else: the inexplicable joy of miraculously receiving a note from my dear mother whom I never expected to hear from in this way again.
For many months a small brass picture frame I found in a drawer had stood on a living room end table, empty. I don’t know what possessed me to display an empty frame, but suddenly, as I stood in the hallway, the frame’s purpose became clear. I took the note I had just received from my mother and slid it into the frame, under the glass. I felt good. . . very good; and, raising the shawl collar, I pulled the coat tighter, buttoned those beautiful rhinestone buttons, and went out for a walk in the cold night air with my husband.
Sara Nuss-Galles is a writer living with her husband, Arie Galles, an artist, and two college-age children in Madison, NJ
Bubba Invests In a Mink
by Karen Prager
Last year my mother got a call from her mother. Bubba sounded strange — almost as if she were about to cry. “Jeannie,” she began, pausing to give her words the proper weight, “I’m at Epstein’s. They’re having a sale.” This being not particularly exceptional, my mother waited. “A sale on fur coats,” Bubba went on. “I’m standing here in a gorgeous white mink coat! They say it looks perfect on me! And it’s so cheap! Oh Jeannie, I’ve never had a fur coat — it’s so gorgeous — and you know I never spend money on myself… I’ve been so cold these winters….”
Gradually it became clear to my mother that Bubba was asking her for permission to buy the mink. Firmly committed to sacrifice as a way of life, Bubba needed someone else’s okay to indulge herself. “It’s an investment, you know,” she continued, “they’re having such a sale, and when I’m gone it will be yours, and then Karen’s and Tamar’s.”
“Mommy, I don’t want a fur coat,” answered my mother. “I don’t like fur coats. Get it for yourself — you want it and you’ll be warm.”
“Really? I should do it? Oh, I just don’t know….”
“Mommy, just buy the coat. Enjoy it.”
“Okay, Jeannele. I can’t wait to show it to you. . . Oh I can’t believe this — you know I never spend money on myself….”
The next weekend Bubba brought the coat, an event so momentous she arranged for a ride to our house rather than taking the usual two buses. She modeled it for us, then had me try it on (my mother refused). I had never worn a fur coat before, and could not believe how luxurious it felt; I couldn’t stop stroking my arms. I felt like the Ukrainian krasavitza [beauty] Bubba and her sisters called me when they got together and spoke Russian.
I haven’t seen the coat since that weekend; Bubba can’t seem to bring herself to wear it; it’s “too good.” So the investment hangs in her closet, waiting for my mother, or so Bubba hopes. I keep hoping that this winter Bubba will wear it — at least once.
How To Honor The Dead
by Susan Schnur
Barbara Colgan of Hopewell, New Jersey, noticed that a lot of women she knew had the same dilemma — what to do with Grandma’s fur coat hanging in the attic. Her observations soon turned into a full-time retirement career: transforming fur coats into teddy bears. For one hundred and thirty dollars, Colgan will recycle your inheritance into a custom made 14 to 18 inch teddy bear (this is one big teddy bear!), complete with Plexiglas childproof eyes, jointed arms and legs (husband David does the jointing), and birth announcement. (“You can name the bear after Grandma.”) “Send me the whole coat,” says Colgan, “and I’ll make lots of bears out of it — one for every daughter and granddaughter in the family. I deal only,” she adds shyly, “in memories.” Dividing one sable coat into 4 or 5 equal bear parts serves to solve that mathematical puzzler, too—who gets the single undesirable object?
Colgan says that just about everyone is completely stumped by what to do with inherited fur—even thrift shops. (“Nobody buys the old furs, plus they take up too much rack space.”) Elderly customers sometimes bring their own furs to Colgan, knowing that none of their children wants to inherit them: The coats will get closeted for years, and then dumped, all to the tune of dysgenic guilt. “But no one,” says Colgan, “throws out a mink teddy bear.”
Jewish women may feel some anxiety over the perceived in-group nature of such privileged dilemmas. Colgan is reassuring. “The most commonplace memory that people seem to have, when they talk to me about the furs they’ve inherited, is of stroking their hands over Granny’s coat while standing next to her in church.”
Sewing and stuffing each bear from scratch (each one takes four days to make), Colgan asks customers individualized questions: “Do you have an antique doily of your grandmother’s? This bear would look so pretty in a ruffly lace collar.” Her most recent transformation was a Persian lamb coat (again. Grandma’s) with a gray mink collar; it became three Persian lamb teddy bears (one per granddaughter) with mink-tipped ears. (Having identical bears in three different cousins’ bedrooms is, in itself, touching.) A fur coat’s brocade lining makes very silky foot pads. “I’ve done Dad’s tweed winter coat and Grandpa’s plaid wool fishing jacket, too,” adds Colgan, “but recycled furs are the most wonderful.”
To further problem-solve this endangered-breed/sentimental- kitsch dialectic, contact Barbara Colgan, The World’s Smallest Teddy Bear Factory, P.O. Box 483, 10 Eaton Place, Hopewell, NJ 08525. 609-466-0411.