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Monthly Memoirs Thursday, 02/01/2024

Fur-lined memories When Mink Coats Ruled

February 2024 Monthly Memoir

My mother, Passaic’s Eva Tobin Katz’s old Blackglama mink hangs in my guest room closet on a puffed velvet hangar befitting its pedigree. The coat serves more as memory now than as a functional article of clothing. When she died in 1988, I relinquished many of the relics of her past. The black mink endured, however, as did the connection we shared of days gone by when my mother sported that coat with great style and verve.

Through the years, wearing fur was handed a bad rap. It became politically incorrect to parade furs as status symbols acquired through the slaughtering of animals. Animal rights activists were inflamed. Paint throwing became an acceptable form of acting out, and many former fur owners threw in their coats or gave them away, resorting to wearing faux fur rather than dealing with the repercussions.

I followed suit. Fur jackets were tucked away, and wool coats in winter and cloth coats in spring became the acceptable fashion statement. Those who didn’t mind being in the minority, unable to part with their precious seal, lamb, chinchilla, fox and mink, and who were brave enough to endure the furtive, disapproving glances, stayed true to their furs, offering lame excuses:

“I bought this old thing years ago, so I might as well wear it.”

When it came to my mother’s mink coat, parting with it seemed unimaginable as if by doing so, I would be severing a vital part of the mother-daughter bond. Instead, I squeezed the coat in between other discarded items: old blankets, ski outfits and Laura Ashley dresses that would never again see the light of day. Occasionally, when I check on these random keepsakes, I am transported back to another time when memories are ignited, and my mother, decked out in her coat, and I, scoured the New York department stores, where the ladies-who-shopped, looked like pudgy stuffed animals in their winter furs.

My mother’s small frame made her look oddly distorted in that coat. It was slightly overpowering in that the abundance of pelts seemed like overkill on a body that was best suited for less conspicuous attire. But she coveted it mainly because it had been a gift from my father, Benjamin Katz, who believed that mink signified the depth of his devotion, as did the diamond engagement ring he had given her when he graduated from law school. It was that same ring, which, one New Year’s Eve on a champagne high, she accidentally flushed down the toilet. But, that's another story.

The mink coat remained intact through the years. It’s difficult to kill a mink even one that had morphed from animal to an inanimate object. She wore it to occasions large and small, and it still retains the lingering scent of Joy perfume – her favorite. She sported that coat to the theater, ballet, concerts, holiday parties and even to Rutgers football games, where she, my dad and I sat in the bleachers rooting for my father’s college team, my mother pulling the mink collar around her to ward off the autumn chill.

The coat ultimately became a constant companion for my mother. After a while, following my father’s death, or when special occasions became passé, she started wearing the mink on more ordinary romps, like trips to the grocery store and medical apportionments, where she tossed the coat haphazardly over large metal hooks. As she aged, she became less fastidious about where her mink landed. She and her coveted fur became a kind of dynamic duo, both facing old age together. Once, she even made a quick trip to the garbage bin just when the pickup guys were arriving, whom I imagined viewed her as some sassy dame, who was unwilling to face her declining years in less-than-classy attire.

Many milestones occurred in that coat including celebratory dining experiences when she handed over the mink to coat check matrons. Along with it came a set of instructions to look after coat as though it were a prized possession requiring tender loving care lest some disaster befall it, or worse, another patron might claim it as her own. (My mother could become slightly paranoid when it came to mink).

As the years progressed, the coat began showing signs of decline and lost its luster. A few of the pelts loosened, and the wide fur collar became frayed and limp. It had stood the test of time - as did my mother - but as with most things that can’t endure forever, the coat simply wore itself out. It was no longer the mink that it was back in the late 1950s when I stood on the rim of adolescence waiting for my life to start.

I recall days on Passaic’s downtown Broadway when after lunch at Wasser’s, we headed over to Garber’s Furs where my mother tried on an array of coats, jackets and stoles, parading herself in front of the three-way mirror as proudly as if she already owned the “beast,” as I called these coats.

 “You look like a million bucks,” the furrier announced.

“I just might consider this one,” she said, trying on a sable coat that practically buried her inside its fur.

But in the end, it was the Blackglama mink that stole her heart along with my dad’s money.

Now, when I visit the coat, which I do with frequent regularity, it seems to have shrunk in size, as my perspective on life grew larger. It still hangs in my dark cavernous closet as a reminder of what once was. Sometimes, it’s almost as though my mother is still present, sitting at her vanity, applying makeup and combing her hair. I enjoyed watching her dress, and descend the stairs looking like a petite and elegant goddess, ready for a night on the town.

I treasured those magical, sparkling nights as much as she did, as I stood by the door, handing over her little clutch. She bent down and kissed me goodnight, promising to bring me back a treat: a matchbook from a restaurant, a small trinket, or perhaps a Playbill from a recent Broadway show.

We said our goodbyes, which included furry hugs, and my mother smiling softly and smelling lovely, the whiff of her perfume intoxicatingly heady as I inhaled deeply, observing it all from the sidelines with my own vicarious anticipatory excitement.

On such nights, my dad, looking handsome and debonair, lovingly draped the mink coat around his wife's delicate shoulders. They walked out into the crisp evening air - a snapshot frozen in time, as vivid as my mink-lined memories safely sequestered behind the closet door.

Garber's label sewn into their furs
Lady in hooded mink
Blackglama mink coat
Painting by Bessie MacNicol