My mother's only "fur" coat was a blatant fake that I dubbed Smokey the Bear. Mom wasn't an animal right's activist. She simply couldn't afford the luxury of a mink, fox or lynx coat. Even rabbit would've been a stretch. When an occasion called for glitz and glam, she begrudgingly borrowed her mother-in-law's Autumn Haze mink stole.
Other than a fox fur hat that I wore briefly in my late teens, under the mistaken impression that it made me look like a supermodel named Verushka, I've never coveted fur of any kind unless it was still attached to a living animal. When I see leopards, I don't fantasize how their skin would look on my head, back or feet. I fantasize playing with their cubs.
So, it was with mixed emotions that I recently accepted a mink jacket that had belonged to a friend's mother. Mrs. Barson was a wealthy woman whose closet was filled with designer labels for which she pointedly paid retail.
"They are investments," she would say of handbags for which she had paid an amount that, to me, was the equivalent of three months' rent.
Now that Mrs. Barson was entering an assisted living facility, she was divesting herself of things that would not be needed in a world of velour jogging clothes, early-bird dinners and sing-alongs. That included a fortune in Gucci, Prada and Hermes clothing and accessories. When I volunteered to help sell her collection on eBay, I was amazed to discover Mrs. Barson was right. Her closet was filled with investments for which people were willing to pay top dollar. They quickly snapped up her Pucci dresses, Halston gowns and Oscar de la Renta ensembles.
When it came to her fabulous furs, Mrs. Barson said, "Take them. Their yours."
It would not have done any good to refuse. Mrs. Barson is the kind of feisty woman who barks orders like a drill sergeant, forcing second helpings of brisket on already bloated dinner guests and a mountain of fur coats on me. I couldn't complain. The coats came with a wide-screen TV.
One fur was a lynx jacket that made me look like a polar bear. Another was a fox aprés ski jacket which would've been fine if I could travel back in time to the 1960s and learn to ski. I took them both to a consignment shop. The third one, a full-length mink coat that Mrs. Barson had restyled into a hooded jacket, I kept. Why? Partly, for the absurdity. The circles in which I move are primarily concentric, requiring nothing fancier than a beat-up leather jacket. And partly, because I wanted to hold onto a piece of Mrs. Barson, a domineering woman whom, at barely five feet tall, had been an important influence in my life.
Without the benefit of a college education, Mrs. Barson worked as a secretary for decades and picked up an unusual hobby. While her peers were playing canasta and mah-jongg, Mrs. Barson taught herself how to play a more lucrative game: the stock market. The Wall Street Journal was her Bible. That's how she could afford to fill her closets with designer duds, her jewelry box with serious bling and her bank vault with six-digit assets. But under her Prada cashmere sweaters, Mrs. Barson had a caring heart. From the time I was a teenager, she generously doled out homemade apple strudel and encouragement for each and every one of my aspirations, no matter how unrealistic or risky.
When I was a caterer, she ordered my cakes. When I designed dresses, she was the first to buy. No sooner had I written a novel, than Mrs. Barson was raving about it to her neighbors. My own mother, on the other hand, had serious apprehensions (and angina) every time I jettisoned one career for another. Mrs. Barson? She was the applause track to my life for decades. When I finally settled down and took an office job, she said, "Fine, but don't let that be who you are."
While my social life will never call for luxury furs, climate change is on my side. Summers are hotter. Winters are colder. And, as I discovered the first time I wore it, mink really is warmer than a down parka. With the hood protecting me from icy winds and my hands plunged deep into the velvet-lined pockets, I feel cocooned in a special kind of comfort, the kind that only comes from a lifetime of being loved.