It was 1953. I was leaving for college in a few weeks and needed a new winter coat—one that was warm and made well enough to suit my mother, a more than competent seamstress who couldn’t abide badly made clothing.
We started at S. Klein, a discount department store where it was possible to find bargains. I found a few coats I sort of liked, but my mother made it clear—they were poorly made and not warm enough for the cold winters in upstate New York.
Next stop, Ohrbach's, also a discount store but with a better class of merchandise. Many more coats to choose from. None suited me or my mother. Wondering where we’d go next, I was shocked to hear my mother say, “Well, I guess we’ll have to try Saks 34th St. Let’s walk.”
What? Buy at a full price department store?
She took off without another word, walking fast. I followed behind as best I could, the two of weaving in and out of people crowding the sidewalk. When we had to wait for a light, my mother maneuvered herself to be the first person to cross the street, with me struggling to keep up with her. The discount stores were at 14th street, Saks was at 34th street, but we were used to walking distances. What I wasn’t used to was my mother’s willingness to buy something at full price. I couldn’t remember that ever happening.
The difference in the quality of the coats was quickly apparent. My mother picked out three coats she considered suitable. I liked them all, especially one, a gray wool ballerina coat with a fleece lining and a large collar that could act like a hat in bad weather. When I told my mother I liked it, she said, “Good, let’s buy it.”
I looked at the price tag. One hundred dollars. “It’s too much money,” I told her.
“You like the coat. Buy it. It’s well made. It will last a long time.”
“But it’s too much money,” I kept saying, almost in tears. “You never buy anything at full price and it’s more than four times what the coats at Klein’s and Ohrbach’s cost.”
My mother lost patience, took the coat, with me following, not knowing where she was going. She found a telephone booth and called my father at work. “Irving, will you please tell your darling daughter to buy the damn coat!” She thrust the phone at me.
My father sounded mystified. “What’s the problem, Nancy?
“The coat is too expensive.”
“Do you like the coat?” he asked.
“Yes, but it’s too expensive. It’s too much money,” I wailed.
“Nancy, if your mother wants you to buy the coat, for godsakes, buy it!” With that he hung up.
We bought the coat. I wore it for more years than I can remember. I never stopped loving it.
Did you experience a time when you and a parent switched roles? What was that like for you?
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.