Two Winter Coats
By JIM NICHOLS
We had a brief snap of winter weather recently—three days of ice, cold, even some snow. It was rather meager compared to other parts of the country, but, for those of us who like winter, it was fine. I was thankful for our good furnace in the house, lots of bed blankets, flannel lined jeans, and my winter coats. These are not coats to wear in Alaska, but for temperate, short winters they are more than adequate. Until this winter, I was not able to use the plural—coats. There is a story there, and, perhaps, you can think about it with me.
These two coats are not originals with me; each belonged to someone else first. Therefore, they are coats with a history and when I wear them, I am dragged into that history. In many ways, I am literally wrapped into their history.
The older coat is pushing four decades at least and belonged to my father. It was almost new when he bought it; I believe he might even have been sick already. It is tan with plaid, thick lining; the large collar and tie hood work well against the cold and wind. As he did with most of his belongings, he had put his name in block letters (“NICHOLS”) in the inside collar. It was clean when I first wore it; I need to take it to the cleaners now. I have only two other items that clearly were his. One is a leather belt, reversible black and brown on opposite sides. The other is a single white cloth handkerchief embroidered “Nick.” I never knew him by that name, but, apparently, he answered to that in his younger years.
The other coat lacks a hood but is equally warm otherwise. It seems furry and soft. Also practically new, it seems to have been hardly worn. It does carry some history, however, although more recent. Its original owner and I were friends since college; we married into the same family and our lives have been intertwined for nearly 60 years. His passing recently has been a trauma for which we were not prepared.
Upon someone’s death, all sorts of questions are raised. Some are theological and deeply personal, and others, for lack of a better term, are practical. I suspect several of you readers have been faced with some decisions from this latter category. You have been at least partially responsible for deciding the next destination for the belongings of the departed person.
One possibility, of course, is to do nothing; just leave everything as it is. That might be the best solution, but it is clearly a temporary one.
More specifically, what becomes of the clothing from that individual? When can someone else claim or use it? Who is that someone else? Under what circumstances is a new owner appropriate? I do not believe these are questions to address early on, but they eventually become logical. Who should be the players in these decisions?
Oddly enough, may I suggest that the reader’s gender may play a part in this consideration.
It may just be a personal quirk of mine, but it seems to me that females are much more inclined to share clothing than are males. One of my daughters as a teenager every morning had a phone call with a neighbor girlfriend in which they compared what they were going to wear to school that day. Very often, they borrowed clothes from one another, handing traded outfits to one another in the middle of the street. That would never occur to males.
In the case of these two coats, there was a gravity to the acquisition for me. Even though it went against my undefined awkwardness about wearing someone else’s clothes, I was drawn to connect with the original owners in a unique manner. Each coat had been purchased by someone I loved and trusted. Each coat had been chosen out of several other possibilities. Both coats were expensive and represented a sacrifice as the owner looked to a future of comfort and warmth. Neither coat fulfilled that future desire.
With my male boundaries down, I accepted the gift of each coat at its time. Each may look like an ordinary coat to you, but each feels like an embrace to me.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain
For me this is a profound story. In second grade my friend and classmate had his arm pulled out of socket at recess by older boys roughhousing. He was quickly sent to the hospital but his coat was left on the playground. In haste our teacher asked if he could take my coat instead and of course I consented. a note was sent home explaining. I took very good care of that coat for a day. My friend died when he was 31 years old of a heart attack. That was a shock for me.
My husband is sorting through the detritus of his parents’ lives right now. Seeing what has emotional attachments for the heirs has been an interesting and puzzling process. I am very glad you have those coats.
My older brother, whom I had always adored, died suddenly of a heart attack at age 55. To say we all were in shock at such a sudden loss—his wife—their two sons—my mom—so many others—just doesn’t capture all that was left unsaid.
His widow, whom I had known since I was a teenager, seeing my pain at losing my only sibling, gave me his UK sweatshirt (we were raised in KY. —where basketball is everywhere!!)
Now—when ever it’s cold enough I put it on and smile that a part of Billy lives on in my heart and on my very self.
Your work has always been a great source of inspiration for me. I refer you blog to many of my friends as well.