I remember that horrible coat from all those years ago.
On a blustery, fall day during my 4th-grade year, when I arrived home from school, it was just there, hanging in the utility room closet. It was a warm, light blue color.
Ordinarily, I like blue.The colors that I detested at that time were brown and navy blue, but there was something about this coat that overrode the fact that it was a pleasant, calm lake-blue. It had a fur trim on the hood -- also something to be admired, but this trim looked like a gray and black lion’s mane, which does not exist in nature, so I was not impressed.
The thickness of the coat was the real trouble -- the quality that truly caused hate at first sight. The fact that the coat was obscenely thick was something that was undeniable. Living in a northwest suburban, about an hour from the windy city of Chicago, Illinois, I was used to being outside in subzero weather. Snow days were rare because usually, winter was more about the cold than the snow. It had to be 30 degrees below zero for school to be canceled. At 29 degrees below, we children were still outside waiting for our buses. I had survived that weather many a year without ever wearing a coat that did not allow me to put my arms down to my sides.
This coat was that breed of coats that was so stuffed with insulation that when you wore the coat, your body felt completely squeezed, and you could barely bring your hands to the front of your body to zip it up or down when needed. You would put it on and feel like you were suffocating because it had your torso in a tight bear hug when zipped. Wearing the coat was like having on a thick, warm, straight jacket.
When I first saw the coat, I automatically recoiled and looked at my mother with what must have appeared to her to be a face full of trouble. As much as I dreaded wearing the coat, she must have dreaded the fact that she was going to have to force me into it.
“What is wrong with you? You need to stay warm, and that is all you should worry about!” my mother said, using the contemptuous tone of voice she used when we children were petty in ways that only adults understood. That was certainly easier said than done -- caring about being warm, instead of not wanting to look like a giant, blue bear with a tiny human girl face.
Not a child to adeptly articulate my feelings about such matters as a mystically repulsive coat, I just started to cry: wail.
That angered my mother more. We had a big family: five kids. Spending precious time and patience arguing with a 4th grader about whether she wanted to wear this mysteriously acquired but “perfectly good” winter coat was not a top priority for such a mother.
Fortunately, time was on my side, I thought. It was only late fall. I was hoping that in the few weeks before it would be needed, I could grow out of the coat.
Faster than I could have imagined, it was the dead of winter and I had not grown out of the coat. I woke up on one winter morning, and when it was time to put on my coat, there it was -- produced by my mother, and she had that no-nonsense look on her face. When I was nine, my younger twin brothers were 5 and not even in kindergarten yet. The other siblings were a 7-year-old and an 11-year-old. At any given time, some child in the house was always snotty, gassy, poopy, bloody, sleepy, sickly, whiny, wheezing, tearful, or hungry. With that number of young kids in a house against one mother, first thing in the morning was not the time to have a meltdown. I did it anyway. Nevertheless, with the strength that only a mother of five children under 12 could have, my mother got me bundled into the coat and shoved out the door.
The moment I feared had arrived. I was outside, in public, with the coat. Step-by-step, I needed to get to the bus. My clunky shoe boots (and those monsters were another story) crunched the snow, amplifying my walk so that all children of the neighbor could hear my walk of shame. I had to keep both my tote bag and lunch box in hand. I could barely keep my balance with the restrictive coat on, as I walked to the bus stop slowly. I was dreading the reaction of the other children. These were suburban catalog-looking children whose parents took winter as an opportunity to buy them trendy winter hats with fluffy balls at the ends, earmuffs, multi-colored gloves, and bright, attractive, reasonable winter coats -- nothing excessive. The bus stop kids were stylishly adorned, friendly, jolly, carefree children who threw snowballs and joyfully slid on the ice in their picture-perfect winter gear every morning before the bus arrived each winter morning. I could not face such children while wearing my monstrously practical, sufficiently warm coat.
I imagined that they would see me coming, a stiff figure, white condensation seeping from my mouth like a dragon, wrapped head to thigh in a coat that could have been the envy of every citizen in Alaska, and they would laugh uncontrollably. Thinking back, I can remember the lump I felt in my throat in anticipation of it. I imagined that they would point and laugh and fall on the ground with delight while I stood with my arms straight out, trying to find the strength to inhale and exhale through the tight coat. I could imagine the bus getting to the stop and being delayed as I tried to walk down the aisle, which I could no longer fit down. My arms would be stuck straight out with my tote bag and lunch box grasped in my fingers. Everyone on the bus would laugh.
By the time I got to the bus stop, I was crying uncontrollably. That is probably why nobody laughed. Instead, they seemed baffled and confused as they looked at my tear-stained face, and I continued to wail. The bus arrived, and I got on and somehow managed to make it to a small, two-person bus bench, which must have caused discomfort to my seatmate because my coat made me the size of two people. Ordinarily, there was normal chatter on the bus. However, that morning, there seemed to be a surreal silence, which made it easier for the other riders to hear my loud sniffling. The whole bus must have been concentrating on the ugliness of my coat and offering up prayers of thanks that none of their parents were so unkind as to wrap them in a 10-inch thick, blue blanket with a zipper and hood and call it a coat.
That winter, a 5-month long Illinois winter, I wore the coat every day. It was the winter of my despair. I dreamed about how to destroy the coat nightly. One of the more benign plans was to pour syrup all over it, but there were times when I dreamed of setting it on fire. I did not dare carry out any of my plans because I thought my mother would catch me and finally be driven to commit murder or worse.
By and by, it was spring; I had survived. I immediately hatched a plan to grow out of the coat so I would not need it the next year…
My plan to grow over the spring, summer and fall worked. By the next year, I was broader and taller, and I needed a new coat.
I can vividly remember the relief I felt when my tormentor was given away to the Salvation Army the following winter. The coat may have become the problem for some other child with ridiculously practical parents. I sometimes think about that big, blue coat today. I wonder if the coat, in all of its density and fortitude, has survived and will continue to torment fourth graders wherever there is bitterly cold weather --now and through eternity.
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Ah, poor little poppet in giant coat! When I was a child, my mother used to put me in dungarees that I hated. My only salvation was the dressing up box at pre-school, and the devastation when that was off limits was catastrophic! I'm with her, I feel for her. I would have enjoyed a line or two about the execution of the plan to grow - loads of food, no slouching, hanging from a climbing frame to stretch etc. Very sweet story.
Thank you so much Jay.