The Red Coat of Happiness

Maybe it is because I am such a history-geek or maybe it is because I have no fashion-sense of my own, but I couldn't type "red coat" without thinking of these guys.

Maybe it is because I am such a history-geek or maybe it is because I have no fashion-sense of my own, but I couldn’t type “red coat” without thinking of these guys.

I am not a things-oriented person.  I once took a management training course in which the presenter said that all people are good at dealing with objects or people or data or ideas, but no one is good at all. I didn’t have to take her quiz to know I will take ideas, people, and data over objects any day.

And that is one of the reasons that this past year has been so challenging. With the help of a few family members and one of my dearest friends, I emptied my mother-in-law’s house, and she and my father-in-law had things. Lots and lots of things.

Throughout the process, I found myself angrily questioning them. “Why in the hell do they have so much %@#$-ing stuff? Did they ever get rid of anything? Ever?”

Then, justifying the enormous amount of stuff. “Well, they lived in this house for almost forty years. That’s forty years without the benefit of a major purge—the kind you only get from moving.”

To finally admitting, “If someone else had to clean out my house right now, they would be blown away by the amount of stuff I have. I should purge,” and “Even if you don’t have much, when someone else has to move it, it will feel like you have a lot.”

In the end, the monumental task took me almost a year, and of course, I had to figure out what to do with it all and so I rented storage units. When the storage unit manager asked me what size unit I needed, I found myself at a loss to describe how much stuff I wanted to store. “There’s furniture and my mother-in-law’s wardrobe…”

“She has a standard size walk-in closet now?” he asked.

I couldn’t even begin to answer that question. I went back to her house with a tape measure and reported back to him, “She has 71 linear feet of hanging clothing.” Let’s put this into perspective. My closet holds seven linear feet of clothes, and I share that space with my husband. How is that one person could accrue 71 linear feet of clothing? Well, if you never get rid of anything and you convert bedrooms into closets…

Yep, my mother-in-law was a well-dressed clotheshorse, a fashionista, and a hoarder. She had/has some beautiful clothes. Sadly, she only wears a small percentage of them now—partly because she rarely goes anywhere that requires dressing up and partly because of the atrophy. The physical act of dressing her is a struggle—for her and for the person doing the dressing. On a good day, she “helps” by lifting her arms a little. On a bad day, it’s like dressing a concrete statue.  Worse yet, I know it’s painful for her to move or be moved. For this reason, she wears a lot of sweats, and when I buy her something new, I look for fabric with a lot of “give.”

So, much of her stylish—and once stylish—wardrobe is in storage.

Over the weekend, we managed to consolidate her storage units, and in doing so, we moved a lot of clothes. I looked at her coats—of which there were many—shook my head and thought, “Coats should not be stored. The weather is turning cold and people need coats,” and so, I grabbed a bunch of them, took them home, and sorted them for donation.

Some of these coats were wrapped in plastic and had dry-cleaning tags dated 2003. They had not been worn in a decade? One of the coats was a long red, wool one that was probably purchased in the 1980s. I shook my head, “Who hangs onto stuff this long?”

My church runs a small, but bustling thrift store. Yes, I just wrote “my church,” but if you follow my blog you know I haven’t worshipped there in over a year—hence, the church-search, but let’s go with this anyway…

My church runs a small, but bustling thrift shop that is only open two days per week, but if you go there on those two days, you will meet a real cross-section of society working, shopping, and donating. I donate—often.

On Monday morning, I loaded my car with an assortment of stuff—including three Ikea rugs and a box of coats that belong to my mother-in-law–and stopped at the thrift shop to unload. My goal is always, always, ALWAYS to get rid of things because my house is too small and too cluttered to store anything that is not currently in use.  A stop at the thrift shop is always a big win for me.

But on Monday, I realized what a win-win-win it is for everyone. I get less stuff and a tax deduction—whoo-hoo! The church makes a little extra money that is put back into community outreach programs. And the shoppers get incredible deals. While I know that some of the shoppers are just very frugal or environmentally conscience, I suspect most of them are what politicians call “the working poor.” They have an income, albeit a very small income, and they don’t want a hand-out. They want the things they need to be affordable.

Almost as soon as I pulled the rugs from the back of my car, a woman was asking one of the volunteers how much they cost. As he hesitated, another shopper yelled, “I bought three just like that last week. The lady in the office sold them to me for three dollars each.” I smiled. I donated those rugs, too.

When I looked at the woman who had purchased the rugs, I saw that she had a baby with her.  I recognized her stroller. It was once mine.

I know it sounds hokey, but I’ll say it—my heart leaped for joy to know that these things were being used by someone who genuinely wanted and needed them. Other than a slight rip in the canapé, that stroller was in excellent condition. I imagine she was excited to find it and to buy it for only a few dollars.

And still, that experience paled compared to what happened next. A very young woman, probably no more than 19 or 20, began digging through the box of coats. She was so lovely—dark skin, dark eyes, long, thick, wavy black hair. While I don’t like to make assumptions about people based on how they look, I am pretty sure that she was from somewhere in Central or South America. When she found the red coat, she pulled it out of the box, hugged it like a long-lost loved one, and her face—she smiled the most beautiful smile. People say, ”so-and-so lit up” all the time—and so, it feels like such a banal thing to write, but yes, she lit up. She was glowing with happiness over that coat.

Why was she so excited to find it? I don’t know. Maybe she had always wanted a red coat? Perhaps she once had one, but lost it. Maybe the coat wasn’t for her, but would be the perfect gift for someone she dearly loves.

I do know that in that moment, I forgave my mother-in-law for holding onto her things for too long. If she had discarded that coat long ago, this young woman would have never found it, and I felt certain that this coat was meant for her.

In retrospect, I wished I had said something to her. I wish I had said, “That coat belonged to my mother-in-law, and she had the most elegant taste in clothing. She came to this country as a young woman and she had an extraordinary life. She had a long and happy marriage, she raised children, she had a beautiful home, and she had a career. Oh, her career! She worked for the Ecuadorean Embassy and the Organization of American States. When she retired, she volunteered at the White House. May God bless you with such a life!”

When our eyes met, all I did was smile. The moment passed with me saying nothing, but I was thinking, “Thank you for this gift.”

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