The yellow coat was an odd choice for Mother because she usually went along with what her friends wore, but no one else had anything that even closely resembled mother’s yellow coat.
It was made of thick cashmere in a deep canary color with red buttons and a red lining. It had a swing back, typical of ‘50’s glamour, and a seductive hem that skimmed mother’s perfect ankles. If all conversation didn’t stop when mother made an entrance in her yellow coat, it was because everyone in the room needed to have their eyes examined.
Mother was at her loveliest during the days of the yellow coat.
These were the years that spanned her mid 30’s to early 40’s. She was by far the beauty among Mother and Dad’s friends. She knew this and loved to flirt with all the men. Mother was especially confident when she wore the yellow coat. Her dark exotic looks contrasted dramatically with the coat’s bold yellow color.
As a dreamy pre-adolescent the transformative powers of the yellow coat held me at bay. I was mesmerized at how a single piece of clothing could change my mother’s state of mind. It didn’t seem to matter that she had spent the day rushing about the house, her nerves frazzled by her many chores.
When party time came, mother put on a cocktail dress, and, if it was an occasion for the yellow coat, magic was at hand. Wearing her favorite dress coat bestowed almost instant relaxation, grace, and happiness to mother. All her cares seemed to dissolve with each movement into the coat. One arm, than another, then the buttoning of the four red buttons, each inscribed with a design that favored a Chinese character.
Dad sensed the special powers of the yellow coat and liked to be part of them. He would fondly call up the stairs to Mother, “Come on Jane, or we’ll be late. I have your yellow coat.”
Mother’s high heels would carefully mark the steps, meeting Dad’s mischievous smile as he held the coat out for her, allowing it’s red silk lining to glisten in the hall light. In retrospect I suspect Dad knew there was a good chance he’d have sex with Mother on the nights she wore the yellow coat.
Now it’s some 40 years later and Mother is dying.
She can only manage the small circumference of her apartment, and has to be oxygen assisted in this, as in all her endeavors. “Walks” are a euphemism for someone pushing Mother in her wheelchair. In her considerable pride, she resists these walks, fearful she’ll be seen by someone she knows. But tonight as I look out her apartment window towards the river, I report back to her hardly anyone is out: just one couple and a woman and a small boy picking late summer flowers.
Eventually Mother yields to my tender cajoling and to the September night. She’s always been partial to those late September evenings that carry the promise of fall, one of her favorite seasons. As I remove her wheelchair from the hall closet, Mother calls from her bedroom: “I’ll need a coat; the weather channel said it’s going down to 50 tonight.”
“No problem. I’ll look for a coat. What about the closet in the den?”
“Yes, there ought to be some coats in there, although I can’t remember.”
I move towards Mother’s tiny antique-filled den, enter it, open the double closet doors, and rummage past cartons of Christmas decorations, out-of-season clothes, and worn suitcases, when I see the yellow coat.
I excitedly skip from the den into the living room with my discovery of the yellow coat.
“Mother, look what I found! Can you believe it? Your yellow coat! It still looks wonderful. You can wear this as we walk along the river.”
In this last chapter of her life, Mother has been excruciatingly private about revealing her feelings, but her eyes are moist with suppressed tears as she stares at the yellow coat.
“Oh Jill, where did you find this? I had forgotten all about my yellow coat.”
She struggles to control herself, to correct the emotions that cause her speech to quiver, and to bring on tears. After a few seconds, Mother regains her composure, but offers an uncharacteristic disclosure, “I think the happiest days of my life were when your father and I were the ages we were when I wore this coat.”
I seize on the opening, “Mother, you were so beautiful then. I was spellbound by the way you looked in the yellow coat. I was so proud of you. I thought I had the most beautiful mother in the world.”
Now it’s my turn to feel the rush of sadness, but I take Mother’s lead, wanting to protect her from feeling defenseless by an outburst of feelings on my part. I purse my lips together so I won’t cry. I manage a composed moment as I help Mother on with her yellow coat.
“Come on Mother, try it on. It’s the perfect coat for tonight.”
She rises slowly from the cane rocker, letting me assist her. She has trouble getting her arms in the armholes. It takes a few tries. Her hands are too arthritic to push the buttons through the buttonholes. I do this for her. Then I help her into the wheelchair, placing the small portable oxygen container on her lap, straightening the coat over her thin legs so she’ll be warm. I take my position behind the chair; hands planted firmly on the handles as we start down the hall towards the elevator.
I stop mid way to the elevator, lean over the chair to kiss the top of mother’s head, whispering into her ear, “You look beautiful tonight.”
She smiles bravely while tears trickle down her cheeks.