On that tiny rectangle of aging paper, in my sister's careful penmanship, are these words:
No date. No other clues, but I recognize it instantly, and recall sitting in the living room of our home at 121 Nichols Street, Danvers, that Christmas morning opening a large present. Inside the box was a huge furry thing, which turned out to be a vintage raccoon coat. And that little note with it was perfect, honoring my nostalgia for the baby 'coons I had rescued and raised in past summers.
The raccoon coat was heavy and warm. The fur on the outside was of variegated colors of brown, tan and black, arranged in broad vertical stripes – much broader than you would see on a live raccoon. Inside, under the cloth lining, I was able to see that the coat had been constructed out of many, many small pieces, often just half an inch wide, oriented to bring similar colors together into wide color bands. I realized that much labor had been invested in the creation of this thick, handsome coat.
The coat was well-worn, no doubt acquired from a local thrift shop. My frugal family had a long history of shopping for bargains at thrift shops, so I was accustomed to wearing second-hand clothes. I also knew that my sister did not have much money, so this was a very reasonable gift. She hadn't killed any raccoons to create it; she was rescuing an old coat and bringing it to me for a new life.
I was delighted. I wore that raccoon coat for years and years. When I was in graduate school in New York City, that heavy leather coat was just the thing to shelter me from the strong winter winds that whipped along the city streets. Riding subways and reaching high for an overhead strap or bar, I sometimes heard stitches snap or bits of the leather tear. Occasionally I attempted, with needle and thick thread, to repair the damage, but it was tough to sew through the old dry leather. The coat gradually deteriorated, but I continued to love it well past its prime. My mother-in-law refrained from direct criticism, but gave me a new fashionable coat one Christmas, and another coat another year. I think those were supposed to be hints. But, except for a few real "dressy" occasions, I continued to wear my old raccoon coat that carried such good memories of my sister and of summers with raccoons.