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Unwrapping Many Warm Memories

February 19, 1987|FRANK FINNEY | Finney is a copy editor for the Times' Orange County edition

The storm had passed but a new one was in the sky when I saw the young woman walking on the wet pavement outside the movie theater with her boyfriend. She was dressed in white pants, white shirt, white jacket, white tennis shoes--and a dramatic, stylish tan coat that was almost a cape, its high collar flaring up to her cheeks and its folds swinging freely about her body. Seeing her, and admiring her casual but chic look, reminded me of two coats that have painted themselves onto my consciousness in bright, indelible colors. They did not change my life completely, as happened to Akaki Akakyevich Bashmachkin, the poverty-stricken civil servant in Nicolai Gogol's "The Overcoat," after he bought a new garment, but they enriched it for many years and in many ways.

One was the first coat my wife bought after I graduated from UC Berkeley and started earning money. It was the essence of softness and warmth.

Its color was a dusty beige rose overlain with a creamy boucle. It had slash pockets, loose sleeves and a collar that was almost a lapel, a piece of whirling whimsy that flowed out of the garment's design. There were no buttons; the coat was cut full and free-flowing, the edges draping together in a straight line in front, yet the fullness allowing it to be wrapped around the body--even two bodies when the wind swept cold across the deck of a ferryboat plying San Francisco Bay.

It was a coat that gave the appearance of weight, but was almost weightless. It caressed and embraced a woman in the manner of fur.

Its color tones were will-o'-the-wisp, changing as the material swished in movement and light struck it at different angles.

It hung in our closet like a single ray of sunshine, making other garments seem drab.

Flung carelessly over a sofa, its luxurious folds draped themselves in a carefree manner that seemed to convey the message of "I'm ready to go again when you are."

It was the coat-of-the-evening for trips to San Francisco to watch ballets and opera, sample restaurants, visit galleries and explore the night life. When we went to gatherings at friends' homes, the coat went too.

Over the years it became entwined in our memories of countless pleasurable evenings. We associated it with excitement and adventure, and just helping my wife slip into it created an anticipatory mood.

It remains vivid in our minds, though its fate is unknown. My wife gave it to my mother, who had coveted it. When she died, the coat was not in her house. Yet, I harbor this fantasy that somewhere a woman wears it still, warmed within and without by an elegance that, though possibly diminished, cannot have been completely lost.

The second coat was demure, almost tweedy in appearance, loosely woven with rust, cream and black threads. At first glance you would say it was brown, but a closer look revealed a reddish tinge.

Mid-calf length, it had slash pockets and 13 small buttons down the front. The shoulders were rounded, with a detail pocket just below each shoulder and angling away from the collar's edge. Rounded sleeves hugged the wrists. The velvet collar, dark brown and with a distinct sheen, was set off by a quarter-inch border of the coat's fabric.

My wife purchased it as we drove east to catch a ship for an extended European trip. She almost lived in it for the next nine months. Pictures from those days show her wearing it as we explored the magic of Paris and Madrid, celebrated Christmas in Barcelona, sipped New Year's Eve champagne on Majorca and gambled at casinos in Cannes and Monte Carlo.

It kept her warm in the natural cold atop the Jungfraujoch; it kept her warm in the unnatural chill of Dachau's depravity.

She wore it during quiet walks beside Amsterdam's canals and for drives through lavishly blossomed tulip fields. And on many nights it served as a coverlet over the foot of our bed, helping us to survive underheated hotels.

But its style was most at home in England, as were we, steeped as we were in its poetry and literature and immersed in its history.

Now, whenever I see the coat hanging in our closet--for we have it still--I remember the intense joys of those days.

My wife puts it on and dances across the room, and I see her skipping through Piccadilly Circus again. She collapses on the floor, breathless, and I see her resting on the grass after a gambol in London's Hyde Park. She laughs, and I hear her bantering with the waitresses of Edinburgh. She arises and walks down the hall, I see her striding in the streets of York, Chester, Cambridge and Winchester, walking through the entrance to Covent Gardens and the archways of Oxford, walking through the Tower of London, the byways of Stratford-on-Avon, the mystery of Stonehenge.

It has been three decades since we shared those experiences, but one sight of that reddish-brown tweed evokes the sights, sounds, smells and wonders of another time, and thrills me anew.

The movie was about to begin and the young couple, hurrying against the rain-induced chill, walked inside. As I watched them, companion thoughts joined in my mind:

How lucky she is, that she has found and is wearing a coat with such dash and style.

How lucky he is, that she wears for him a coat that may forever brighten his memories.

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