As I began cleaning out my current apartment this morning to decide what to keep, toss, or donate, I came across a little bear named Thomas, and I thought I’d share this entry from many moons ago on a now all-but-defunct website. I hope this isn’t considered cheating for Holidailies purposes, but I was reminded of it, so here it is.
About six months after my mother passed away, my eldest sister had one of her coats made into four little teddy bears, one for each of “the girls.” The coat was my mother’s pride and joy and the envy of every woman on the block because it was a “leopard” coat.
I put leopard in quotes because it really wasn’t made from a leopard pelt. It was made from stenciled calfskin. Back in the 1940s, when people didn’t complain so much that this job or that one was “beneath” them and they took any work that amounted to an honest day’s pay, my grandfather took a position as a tanner, and he learned how to stencil patterns onto calfskin so that it looked like something other than what it was.
My grandfather gave the coat to my mother before my mother met my father, and she used to wear it when she went out in the evenings. The coat was soft and sleek, with trim made from some sort of fur that was probably real, though I’m not sure. It had fluffy black cuffs and a fluffy black collar to match the black in the “leopard” spots. It was her “good” coat up until the early 1970s, when the fur had rubbed clean off in places. The seams had begun to loosen as well, and finally, one day, my mother put it in the back of the coat closet in the hallway next to the front door. That was pretty much the last we thought about it until my mother died and my sister had the teddy bears made.
I named my bear Thomas, which is my grandfather’s name. The name we knew my mother by is Thomasina, although her birth certificate says something else entirely. Back in the 1920s, when she was born, the Roman Catholic Church insisted that parents name their children after saints. There was no saint by the name my grandparents had originally chosen, and my grandfather blurted out the first thing that came into his head when they were in the baptistery and the priest told them they needed a different name.
Thomas sits on a nightstand next to our bed, next to Ross’s childhood ceramic Dumbo bank, a crystal vase with glass pebbles and a carved flamingo “flower” a friend gave me, and a cherrywood picture frame that holds a photo of Ross and me from before we got engaged.
Last night, after talking with one of my sisters about our forthcoming trip to Hawaii this summer to finally carry out my mother’s last wish to scatter her ashes there, I got to thinking about Thomas. After I got ready for bed, I picked Thomas up and noticed his ears and eyes were getting a little dusty, so I brushed him off. Then I brushed off his tummy, arms, legs, and back, and the tufty tail on his bottom.
Then—and I don’t know what compelled me to do this—I ran my fingers along the seam on his back, below the red ribbon around his neck, and held him to my face.
Softly, sweetly, a scent so faint that I thought I was hallucinating rose from the seam.
It was my mother’s perfume.
I sniffed again, and there it was, barely discernable, just a hint. It was so faint that if I had never smelled that perfume before, I wouldn’t have caught it. But it was there. My mother’s perfume must have rubbed off on a sleeve, or she must have given herself a last-second spritz with an atomizer on her way out one night.
They probably don’t even make that perfume anymore. The last time I saw my mother wear that coat, I must have been about five or six, which would mean 1971 or 1972. She still wore the perfume whenever she and my father went out on a “grown-up night” until about 1980, when one of my sisters gave her some Estee Lauder signature scent. In the late 1980s she switched to Oscar de la Renta’s signature scent, and in the 1990s she started wearing Tommy Girl. (“Naturally,” she said.)
And all the while, the coat remained in the back of the closet. It must have been there for 25 years before my sister took it out after my mother passed away.
Standing there sniffing Thomas, I had a flash memory of my mother standing in the doorway, looking into the living room, waiting for my father, who was always running late, to get himself together so they could go out. It was a kid’s eye view, so I don’t know what kind of clothing she was wearing, just that it was long, black, and velvet. It might have been a floor-length skirt, or an evening dress, I really can’t tell. I just remember the coat over it. I think she had on gloves, and I think she was holding an evening clutch. When my mother went out, she was always dressed appropriately, in line with Connecticut Yankee etiquette. This was when there was no such thing as “creative black-tie” and everyone knew what the word formal meant on an invitation. Her hair was dark brown, too, so it’s an old memory, as she started going lighter and lighter when she started working, until finally she was a blonde when she passed away.
All of this came back to me as I stood there sniffing this little teddy bear. When I couldn’t smell anything anymore, I scratched the fur against the grain, and the scent came back a little bit stronger, but still faint.
I felt a gentle touch on my arm. Ross had reached up from where he lay in the bed, and he was looking at me with curiosity. I told him I could smell my mother’s perfume on Thomas and he gave my arm a comforting pat.
Finally, I set Thomas down on the nightstand again and climbed into bed. After I turned off the light, I thought of my mother for a long time, probably about an hour. I thought of the time my parents came to visit me in Hawaii, and how much she loved it there. I thought of her as Class Mom, when we went to the pumpkin farm for a Halloween field trip. I thought of her in her pajamas, and in her work clothes, and in this outfit or that, sometimes with her hair done, sometimes in curlers.
Before I fell asleep, the very last thought I had of her was of her in her coat and her black velvet again, only this time, my father had opened the door for her, and she was stepping out into a soft, magical night.
—January 23, 2004
I made only minor edits to this entry, including changing my ex-husband’s name.