Noe Valley Voice December-January 2006

Florence's Family Album

The Gift

Reminiscences by Florence Holub

Editor's Note: In this essay, first published in December 1989, 21st Street resident Florence Holub, 87, describes a Christmas gift that will forever melt her heart.

Christmas is always a happy season--of family, celebrations, and giving and receiving, but for me there is one Christmas memory that stands out above the rest. In the late 1940s, my husband Leo and I were a young married couple with small children. As with most marriages, ours included times of plenty, when Christmas was affordable, but also difficult periods when unnecessary purchases had to be eliminated--and out of such a lean year came one of my warmest memories.

To ease the financial strain that year, Leo and I had sensibly agreed to skip the usual exchange of presents between the two of us, and to concentrate on providing gifts for our small sons, ages 3 and 5. I had just purchased the last item on our short shopping list and was headed for home, when in passing the window of a ladies' apparel shop, I was struck by a sale sign attached to a stylish mannequin. She was wearing a beautiful coat of thick dark brown fur called mouton (which is lambskin processed, dyed, and clipped to resemble sheared beaver). My favorite fur. The price had been slashed from $300 to $150 (that would be $1,500 today), so I couldn't resist going inside to try it on.

When I looked in the tall mirror's reflection and saw how perfectly the coat fit, how stunning it looked, I was tempted. But when the salesman brought out the matching hat and put it on my head saying, "It was made for you," I was sold. When I asked him if I could make a small deposit, then pay off the balance over a long period of time, he acquiesced, saying that a few dollars would hold it.

Upon returning home loaded with packages for the children, I felt the need to confess my unwise deed to my husband, lamenting that it must have been a case of temporary insanity. Leo listened patiently to the details, but we decided to wait and discuss it further after the holidays.

On Christmas morning, our little boys were awake at dawn, eagerly ripping into the wrappings of their presents as we watched the joyful expressions on their faces. Then, in the calm that followed the opening of their last gifts, Leo lifted a large square box and placed it in front of me. Speechlessly, I opened the lid, folded back the tissue lining, and gazed in amazement at the soft brown pelage of the mouton coat that I had so admired. Looking up mistily, I apologized to my husband, "I have nothing for you," but it didn't seem to matter, for I saw my happiness reflected in his eyes.

Leo never told me how he managed, in our circumstances, to pay for this extravagant acquisition. Unlike the hero in the O'Henry story, he did not own a watch that he could pawn.

Over the years, I wore the coat with love and pride, until it became slightly faded over the shoulders. In the '60s and '70s, during the hippie era, when ratty-looking fur coats were "in," a few of our nieces looked at my coat with longing, but I could not part with it.

To wear the fur of animals was once perfectly acceptable. It was high fashion, a status symbol. Although that is no longer true, I still have my coat (which could now use a slight application of Grecian Formula) and I still wear it occasionally--but warily--for I have an irrational fear of being spray-painted by an overzealous animal rights activist. (Let he who has never eaten a lamb chop cast the first stone.)

I love that coat, as well as the man who gave it to me, and I never fail to be moved by the memory of that Christmas morning.