I recently wandered into a vintage clothing store knowing that I would find the perfect stocking stuffer for my daughter Olivia. I imagined finding some absurd trinket, a blue plastic poodle in a begging pose, a pair of cat eye sunglasses or perhaps an old Partridge Family lunch box, I found none of those things and turned to leave when out of the corner of my eye I saw a full length, blond cashmere, swing coat with a blond mink collar, era approximately 1957. I stopped dead in my tracks, dropped my purse, removed my coat and slipped it on. It was in perfect condition. The mink (I normally would NEVER wear fur) was pristine and the fabric of the coat was free of signs of wear. My arms glided in so easily and the weight of the coat blanketed me in warmth without making me feel weighted down by its mass. I slipped my hands into the pockets and felt the soft silky lining that was free of holes and the perfect depth, not too shallow but not too deep. It was so absurdly not what I ever imagined wearing (I typically don’t desire real fur) and yet I couldn’t leave it. It was not just the fact that it fit my broad shoulders or that it’s blond shade in contrast to my dark features was striking. There was something more. There was something about the idea that another woman who before I was born, wore this coat and loved it enough to protect it from moths and dust for over 50 years.
I have a hard time with Christmas. I actually begin having anxiety when my local supermarket starts stocking Christmas candy in late October. For a long time I thought that it was because I am not religious and that I felt it was rather hypocritical to join the hoopla of this holiday when it held no real meaning for me. It irritated me that a holiday that is supposed to represent one of the most holy of days, really only represents shopping, eating in excess, decorations that have don’t seem to have any real symbolic relationship to the holiday and that the number of retail sales nationally seems to serve as a measure of the health of our national economy. The very image of “Black Friday”, an occasion for people to stand in line waiting to burst through the door of a retail establishment like horses at the starting gate, offends me. The images of people fighting and being arrested for wrestling over the latest gadgets sicken me. At my very core I reject this culture of what feels like greed and want to walk away from it. I am however a mother to children who have been raised with the commercial idea of what Christmas represents in our culture and I must balance that fact with my aversion.
Perhaps, I am most offended by what has become a “throw away” culture. We consume in mass, we are addicted to meaningless “stuff” of no real significance. As I throw the obscure plastic pieces from the latest McDonald’s Happy Meal into the trash bin, I often imagine future archeologists and anthropologist hypothesizing about its relevance to our society. Will they perceive the huge number of plastic Disney characters they find in the landfill evidence of something our children worshiped and held near to their hearts? Will they see them as a symbol of who we are as a culture? How sad is that? And what about our addiction to cheap, empty, fast food? Our culture pours millions of dollars into an industry that promotes poor nutrition and as we drive away in our cars we don’t even recognize that the person who took the money that we work to earn, didn’t even bother to smile or say, “Thank You”.
As I write this I find myself wanting to enter into a tirade about the outsourcing of manufacturing and our lack of concern for the human rights in the countries that are manufacturing our goods. I want to start discussing the quality of workmanship and the era of temporariness of products. I want to pound on my desk and speak of the number of unemployed people and the level of pay that could be provided to otherwise unskilled laborers within our own country. I want to scream about the carbon footprint left by our need for a fast, cheap and momentary “fix” for more stuff. I want talk about how our addiction is killing our planet and destroying the animal life that creates the perfect balance of what is true and real but that’s not what this is supposed to be about. This is supposed to be about what I want Christmas to mean to me and to those I love.
This year my husband and I will buy that plastic Xbox controller that my son believes he cannot live without. We will also buy him that cheap mini foosball table that he believes will bring him hours of fun and entertainment and perhaps even serve as an avenue to building bonds among his “buds”. I will also buy him a book of short stories that we will read together with the knowledge that his memory will associate those stories with the moments that we will share together. He won’t remember how that controller felt in his hands but he will remember the warmth of our time together. Moreover, I want the moments that I share with my extended family to be meaningful, not rushed and stressful. I want to see those children of my husband’s siblings through the candlelight of dinner and celebrate the adults that they have become. I want to hear about the world as they see it through their young eyes. I want to talk with my brothers and laugh at their dry humor for situations that are encoded in our history. I want to marvel at how beautifully they have aged and how the new lines in their faces are a map of their experiences and gained character. I want to look at all of our children and see a glint of my father’s smile in their eyes or witness the familiar gesture of a relative I’ve never met. I want to see my mother relaxed and happy and surrounded by love.
Maybe the vintage coat that I bought will become my token Christmas coat. I should wear it as a symbol of the longevity of things that we truly value and a reminder that those plastic pieces that we throw into the landfill should not define who we are. It should also serve as a reminder that the “stuff” that we value should come with an investment of love, respect and preservation.