Red River Coats

It must be fall because it’s cold enough to wear a coat, and it must be a Sunday because the Red River Coat is only for wearing to church. And I must have been 10 or 11, because that was around the time my mother’s mental health took a turn for the worse, and if she’d been more on top of things, the coat would have been stored in the cedar closet, and not in the armoire in my room. We didn’t have closets in our house, which was built in the 1850s and had never been “renovated.”

There were three such coats in our house – The Red River Coat was an almost black navy wool, shaped like a pea coat, with a red stripe down the side, red flannel lining, and a long and thick red wool sash that would wrap twice around the waist. It’s said to have originally been created by the Metis –the mixed race French and Indian people living in the Canadian prairies. The reason we had three of these coats is because my mother liked having her children to match, and the three coats would have been purchased around 1952 for my three older sisters. Usually the matching was for same gender kids, which meant my brother, the only boy among five girls, had his own clothes and never any handmedowns. Although there is a picture of him and my three older sisters all wearing identical blue blazers except the girls had McDonald plaid kilts, and my brother, who stood at least a foot away from the girls, had shorts in the same McDonald plaid. Enough said.

By the early 60s I had started wearing whichever Red River Coat fit me, since my older sisters had long outgrown them. As soon as she was able, my younger sister wore one too. We stood out — nobody at school even knew what a Red River Coat was much less wore one, though there were plenty of Anglican Church ladies who did.

When I put the coat on, the sleeves were noticeably shorter, the scratchy wool tickling the skin just above my wrists. When I put my hand in the pocket, I could see there was a hole, and in the bottom the remnants of a paper serviette, stained dark from the date square or pecan cookie I must have tucked away from church coffee hour. Tiny cut-outs in the dark navy cloth and the serviette made it clear a mouse had polished off my secret stash. What surprised me wasn’t that we had mice – they scurried up and down the walls all night long — but that I’d forgotten it. Sugar was forbidden in our house because my mother was obsessed with our teeth. Candy discovered was immediately flushed down the toilet; when my father put on the brakes, my mother’s arm would swing violently in front of us kids, and she would yell out: “Harry, their teeth.” Never mind our heads that might have careened through the windshield.

Naturally we didn’t have seat belts, because like the Red River coat, the lack of closets, and those effing matched outfits, we were as far out of step with the real world as was possible.



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