The Mink Coat – Winner Story Slam, 2011
“Your father said sorry to me once with that mink coat…
Take it”, she insists, pulling it from my old childhood closet. “You’ll need it in Canada. One less thing to give away after I’m gone…And these letters, from your father, time to throw them out”.
More than sixty letters, as many years old, contents forgotten. “Read mum the letters dad,” I plead with what is left of my father after eighty four years of struggles… “if onlys”… and hopes of winning the lottery.
Wrapped in a blanket in front of the TV, he can hardly walk, a week away from his very last chance, a second open-heart surgery. He’s hardened by a lifetime of working all hours and covering up insecurities with his temper “Now the way I see the things is this!!!”. His need to always be right, and make mum wrong, makes it so hard for them to really meet, heart to heart. She gave up trying to change him and gave in to the slavery of survival and motherhood. Now she’s ready to leave the pain-ridden body that gave birth us five kids. She’s only hanging on… for HIS sake.
“Please dad, read her the letters,” I insist. “It’s good medicine”. Suddenly he smiles, vaguely remembering what’s in them – parents I’ve never known and enchantment they forgot.
1951. My mother’s olive skin glistens in the scorching Mediterranean sunrise as she shovels crispy brown loaves from the domed clay oven. The bread steams as hot as his passion. Of all the girls in the village, from the moment he first saw her, he fell in love… and she smiled because she knew it.
He steals into the bakery every day, trying to catch her eye and snatch a few words, but my black-clad grandmother is always so close, breathing down the back-of-the-neck-of my mother’s virtue, chasing away all suitors….Not this one.
He strides over, grabs mother’s hand. (Accent) “I heard you brought over all the sheep from your father’s village and only lost three”, he blurts out, meeting mother’s anxious gaze, as Grandma takes aim with the baker’s shovel. “And beautiful too!” he cries before ducking out the door, Grandma’s shovel missing by a second.
Grandma bans him from the bakery and locks mother away. He begs, bargains but NO she will NOT let her daughter marry a tailor??!! about to set sail to England. And then he is gone.
To London. He walks ten cold, rainy miles every day to his tailor’s job and back. Penniless and hungry, until payday, when he fills his angry stomach with a whole roast chicken and saucepan full of pasta. But his deepest hunger, for her, grows.
He writes how ruined he is without her, how his heart for her is as vast as the ocean that separates them, how she will one day be warm and safe in his arms. He sends a letter a week, delivered secretly by his best friend, in exchange for a loaf. Mum has no education to write him back.
It takes five miserable months of burning the bread and scaring away ALL the customers, before Grandma finally relents. And sets her favourite daughter free. Alone, eighteen, mum sails away from dusty peasant drudgery, to bet her life on marrying a stranger she knows only from promises in his letters, bundled in her suitcase.
Now, it’s a lifetime later. Mum and Dad’s days are numbered and everything about each other has become all too familiar. Except this little bundle of letters!! My father reads her the last one, out loud, choking back the devotion he never, ever lost but always forgot to say.
For the first time ever, I see my father in tears. He hugs the letter close to his chest. I leave them alone with their memories.
I’m back a couple of hours later, in time to hear him say, for only the second time in his life, “I’m sorry…yes I’m grumpy”. Then he sees me, “Because I had to work so hard to pay for that mink coat. And all you children”.
She looks up at me, “I wanted that coat so much”, she admits, “But not what it took to get it”.
Mum turns to him, stokes his cheek, kindly, “I just ignored you grumpy…angry…whatever” she proclaims, kissing him, “I can only love what’s good in you, even if it’s the tiniest little bit of good. I love that and ignore the rest”.
He winces in recognition. “ My darling wife…you know, the first time I saw you, I fell in love, and you smiled because you knew”.