One Christmas morning many years ago, my mother walked out of the kitchen as she had done since I was a little girl and took her place on the living room sofa, next to a sparsely decorated tree with a small stack of gifts underneath.
On this important day, she always rose earlier than everyone else to start breakfast. As children, my brother and I would awaken to the smell of hot biscuits, scrambled eggs with cheese and country ham cooking on the stove.
In some ways, the ritual seemed the same as it had always been. Only I was an adult, and the tradition was no longer about her children. That year, it was all about my mother.
I shall never forget her smile and the look of anticipation on her face as I handed her a perfectly wrapped box. She opened it slowly, gently peeling away the paper so that it could be used to wrap gifts another year.
Time to give back
Inside were a mink jacket and a matching pillbox hat.
A mink coat was one thing she always wanted, a luxury my father could never afford on his salary at the Uniroyal factory and something she would never have considered using her hard-earned Avon income to purchase for herself.
But her daughter, for whom she had sacrificed every nice thing she ever wanted for herself so that I could have everything I needed as a child, was grown up. I was in my early 30s and had a good job at a newspaper in California. It was time to give back.
The coat wasn’t brand-new, but it looked like it. I had bought it at a resale shop a few years before but never had any use for it while living in California. So, I had it restyled to fit my mother’s petite frame. The hat was custom-made.
Giddy as a schoolgirl
My mother eased her arms into the coat, pulled the lapels close into her chest and pranced around the room like a model on the runway. I don’t recall ever seeing her so gleeful. She was in her 70s then, but she was acting like a giddy schoolgirl.
My father wasn’t the kind of man who openly showed emotion, but on this morning, he sat and watched, flashing a broad smile as a sign of approval.
Mama never would have asked me to give her a mink. In fact, if she and my dad had known it was in my plans, they would have insisted that it was too extravagant and demanded that I choose a different gift.
Tradition of appreciation
In our family, we always have exchanged gifts out of pure love. My parents taught my siblings and I that the value of the gift does not matter. The most important thing is that someone cared enough to think about you at Christmastime.
Most years now, after the family has finished dinner on Christmas Day, we carry out a tradition that began decades ago. When the time comes to open gifts, the children are called one by one to the “hot seat” — a chair placed in the middle of the room — to open their gifts as the adults, seated in a circle around them, watch.
I knew that my mother would love any gift from me. But I also knew how she felt about mink.
She had come into womanhood during the era when mink was a fashion statement and the ultimate status symbol.
In our small town, where most of the good jobs were in the cotton mill, women left work at the end of the day covered with white specks. Putting on a mink to go to church on Sunday morning made them feel special.
She deserved it
A few of my mother’s friends had mink coats or a stole or, at the very least, a hat. A couple of my aunts — neither of whom had children — owned them too.
But for my mother, who earned her money selling lipstick and lotions, such an indulgence was off-limits. She could only watch longingly as other women strolled down the aisle to their pew wearing mink coats.
Years before she began selling Avon, Mrs. Broom, the white lady my mother once cooked and cleaned for, gave her a full-length mink coat that was nearly in shreds. Most of the pelts were dry and peeling — too disgusting to even touch.
But my mother graciously accepted it anyway. An excellent seamstress, she would figure out a way to put it to good use, lining jackets and trimming coats. Nearly every coat I had as a young girl had a little piece of that mink on the collar and cuffs.
A gift that still gives
Mink coats aren’t my style, but I don’t criticize women who wear them, especially African Americans. Black women were just becoming financially self-sufficient enough to buy furs as they were falling out of favor among white women, who were the only ones who could afford them for centuries.
I suppose my mother might be disappointed that her mink jacket is now hanging in a coat closet in my home. It’s tucked inside a garment bag along with the full-length mink coat and another mink jacket my godmother left me after her death last year.
Occasionally, I pull my mother’s jacket out and prance around the house in it the way she did that Christmas morning so long ago. It brings back many fond memories of her and of holidays past.
At that moment, I am thankful that I once gave her a gift that keeps on giving.
Dahleen Glanton writes for the Chicago Tribune.