When I was young, my dad was a farmer and my mama was a school teacher. We didn’t have a lot of money, though it was more the you-don’t-really-need-that-new-shirt kind than the go-to-bed-hungry kind. We got new school clothes in the fall, and shopped at garage sales and thrift shops, and I wanted to be a boy when I grew up anyway (long story…) so I didn’t care much about clothes and whatnot.
The winter of fourth grade, I think it was, I needed a new coat. Because Dewey Johnson was my dad, we had to shop at Archie’s before we looked at any “real” stores, and I was not happy. Archie’s was a fantastic store in Dilworth, a giant, rambling place (much like Ron’s Warehouse in Alexandria) that prided itself on unusual, low-priced merchandise. I had recently come to care, at least a little, about appearances though, and when I realized that I would have to wear this coat every single day for months and months, and I wanted a cute one, not some weird farmer’s surplus odd colored discount fire sale coat.
But my tears of protest were ignored. We wandered around the cavernous store, and with dread I found the winter coat section. But wait: what was this, shoved behind the typical yellow and gray selections? A purple coat. Purple. My Favorite Color Ever, and no one I knew had ever had a purple coat. This one was warm, with soft cuffs, and down inside a thick cotton shell. There was only one. And it was in my size. And in our budget.
I almost wept. I was so excited, I put it on before we got to the checkout, and made the lady look at the back of my neck for the price. It was the prettiest coat in America, I was sure. And it was mine.
I wore it to school before it was really cold enough, because I loved it so much. I seriously can still feel those stretchy cuffs around my wrists, and feel the snaps on the pockets. I had not loved a piece of clothing so much since my mom washed my satin baseball jacket with the green crayon in the pocket.
One night, as my whole family cleaned the bank (as we were wont to do), it was my turn to take the trash out to the dumpster. It was only about ten feet from the backdoor, and usually we just ran out and back without bundling up. But I missed my jacket, so I put it on, propped open the door, and took the garbage back out, swinging it twice to get it into the tall dumpster. As I turned to go back inside, the Prettiest Coat in America caught, just a little, on a rough piece of metal. Before I even noticed, I heard a ripping noise, and my heart fell. On my right shoulder, a hole the size of a nickel showed the lovely white down inside. I thought I was going to throw up.
I came back inside the bank, almost hyperventilating. “Mommmmm…” I called, and ran to show her the tragedy of my coat. “I need another new coat.” My dad snorted, and mom assured me she could fix it. She looked at it carefully, though, and realized I had not just torn it, but somehow removed an entire circle of fabric. She sighed. I was crying, and I meant it. It was so much worse, having loved and lost, than never having loved at all! Why hadn’t I picked a stupid yellow coat that I wouldn’t care about a gaping hole in the sleeve? Why did I need to wear it just to take out the trash? Why were dumpsters so stupid? The whole world was unfair, and my parents didn’t understand at all. Ugh. I was mad and sad and heartsick.
The next morning, I came downstairs to a carefully stitched coat. But my mom hadn’t just fixed it. Somewhere in her sewing box, she’d found a gorgeous, lacy unicorn patch. In fourth grade, the only thing I loved more than purple was unicorns, and my mama had magically brought both together. Instead of being the worst thing ever, my mama took this hole in my coat and made it into the most magical garment I’d ever dreamed of.
Even now, more than thirty years later, I have a great fondness for purple, and for unicorns. And I’m still a believer in the magic of my mama.