Warmth from long ago and my grandmother’s coat

My grandmother's coat

My philosophy on packing is loose. I pack quickly and take the basics. Knowing if there’s something I really need that I forget, I’ll be able to get it at my destination.
That reasoning is why last year when my family went to my parents’ home in Mississippi for the holidays, I didn’t take an appropriate winter coat. Generally, the items I fail to put in my suitcase are small — like lipstick or a hairbrush. Their absence inspires a quick run to the nearest store where I pick up a new tube of Highbeam Tan or Rum Raisin or a $4 plastic stick with bristles.
A coat is a different matter. In the small town where my parents live, options are limited. However, when I was in my mom’s attic looking for an extra roll of wrapping paper, I spotted a rack of old jackets. I chronicled my brother’s high school sports careers with one letter jacket after another. A once-brilliant white letter sweater that I wore with pride throughout my sophomore year was there too.
And then there was a simple, black wool jacket with a Peter Pan collar that was like a time-traveling relic.
I had never worn it, but I knew exactly who had. She must have had others, but this was the only coat I ever knew her to wear. I realize it would fit me and put it on in the cold attic — a familiar warmth washed over me. It was my sweet grandmother’s coat. It had outlived her by a long shot.
This coat was the one I remembered snuggling up to when I was younger and spent more time in her lap than I probably should have. She was a better storyteller than she realized, and though her spirit was as bright as the flowers of her garden, the sadness losing children before their time was always close to the surface. That kind of loss and sadness resonated with me as a child — much as it does still with children everywhere. I would sit in her lap, the rough wool coat feeling scratchy to my cheeks, and ask for her to tell me her stories again.
I had my favorite stories — the ones I could almost recite with her, but I also asked questions to see if there might be stories she had forgotten to tell me along the way. I asked about when she was young, when my mom was young, when they used to go places by horse-pulled wagons and anything else I could think to ask. Of course, she told me plenty of those stories in warmer times while not wearing the coat, but its collar and felting were distinct and unmistakable.
I wore the coat out of the attic and asked my mom if I could wear it home. She said I could.
Since then, it’s sat in my closet until the cold weather returned in the last week. On New Year’s Eve, I put on the old coat to watch fireworks with friends. Once again, it enveloped me with a special warmth. It was still in near perfect condition, only missing one button. Its pockets were perfect and knowing my grandmother’s hands had spent so much time in the same pockets made it feel even cozier.
I was certain my grandmother wore it in the 1970s. I knew the coat had to be at least 30 years old, but it was in near perfect shape. It didn’t have a label in it, but I did find a tiny tag that said, “National Coat and Suit Industry Recovery Board.” With just a few minutes’ research, I learned that the particular version of the label in my grandmother’s coat was only used in the years between 1938 and 1964.
In actuality, the coat was more than 50 years old — and only missing one button.
My grandmother did not pack for trips haphazardly or last minute. She didn’t run out to pick up new versions of the items she owned but failed to pack. She bought things that lasted in a way that my children may never be able to understand or appreciate — and that I barely remember.
Even so, as cold blows in and this new year launches, I have the coat around my shoulders as I type. I am grateful for its thick wool, its silky lining and its soft, perfect pockets and the way it conjures up my grandmother’s warmth.

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