By Jennifer Rieger
While most of my school friends spent their summers attending various camps and enrichment programs, I spent my vacation in the little mountain town of Cresson, Pennsylvania. God’s little acre, my grandmother called it, but to me, it was a town of freedom and ease. This comforted me as a child; I liked being in a place where people stopped me in the market to tell me how much I resembled my Aunt Diana, or told funny stories of my parents growing up. In Suburbia, USA, I was a nobody.
My father was a Postal Inspector, and the nature of his career took us all over the country—Wisconsin, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, Illinois, Philadelphia—but Cresson was always the constant. The town is approximately seventy-five miles east of Pittsburgh, and if you blink driving through, you’re sure to miss it. It’s known for its scenic landscape and crystal spring water, as well as its creamy custard and front porch gossip. Years prior to my own existence, wealthy railroaders and even Andrew Carnegie would vacation in the decadent Queen Anne-style Mountain House mansions to escape the sweltering city summers. Those years are long gone, and the thriving little mountain town of railroaders and coalminers has become a bit depleted, and many struggle to get by.
While both sets of my grandparents lived in Cresson, it was an unspoken understanding that my sister and I would spend our summers with my mother’s parents. I didn’t question decisions like these—I knew better. There was an interesting complexity to my grandmother that the observant conversationalist could discern in a matter of minutes. She loved fresh-squeezed orange juice, clothing made with quality fabrics, porcelain dolls, and her granddaughters. As for the town itself, she possessed a love-hate relationship. An army bride at sixteen, my grandfather whisked her away from Texas and brought her to Cresson, to his family, his life. She willingly followed and gave him a daughter, but never let him forget the sacrifice she made leaving her family behind, even if they were desperately destitute.
I suppose that’s why she needed the mink coat.
Minnie Hudson had a mink, and wore it when there was even the slightest chill in the air—yes, even in the summer. Each Sunday in church, Grandma would stare down that mink like a gentle, skilled hunter stalking prey. She never bad-mouthed Minnie for wearing it, never openly judged her for possessing such an obvious extravagance in a blue-collar town. I watched her, the all-consuming envy gleaming in her sparkling green eyes. At the end of each service, Grandma would make her way to Minnie, feigning a casual conversation. If Minnie noticed the number of times Grandma’s pained, arthritic hands reached out to nonchalantly caress the coat, she never let on. I noticed though. The way her hand would linger a little longer, the way she would sigh when they parted, the way she would look at the sky as we walked home—I noticed everything. And I wished I could buy her that coat. Her crooked hand grabbed my little one. Let’s go into Altoona and get your ears pierced baby doll, what do you say? I know your mother said no, but tiny diamonds will look so pretty. I nodded, smiled, and kicked the rocks of the gravel alley all the way home. Grandma kicked some too.
Meyer Jonasson department store was only a few blocks away from the mall and Grandma wanted to pop in just for a peek. Second only to the God-awful Warnaco’s department store, Meyer Jonasson was the most boring place that I had ever been to in my short life. I would hide in the round clothes racks, picking pins, price tags, and lost coins off of the floor while Grandma tried on every blessed article of clothing in the store. She would stare at herself in the tri-fold mirror turning, examining, backing up, sucking in, until I would be forced to take immediate action telling her how great she looked. For a grandma, you mean. I reassured her that none of my friends had grandmothers as young as mine, nor did their grandmas have their ears double pierced. That usually did the trick.
We always entered Meyer Jonasson at the shoe department, and there was a joy and pain for Grandma. So many delicious, colorful shoes awaiting perfect feet; yet, my grandma’s feet were so misshapen, she could never buy them. So we would try them on, pretend we were models—my grandma in kitten-heels that she could never sport for more than ten seconds and me in oversized three-inch heels that would surely cause instant death had I tried to actually walk. Finally, Grandma would give up. I don’t think any of these are for an old woman like me. Practical footwear once again secured, we would head to the next department.
That’s when we saw it. The mink.
Grandma casually walked over to the luxurious coat and just stood in front of it for what felt like hours. It was on sale, marked down 20% off.
“I think you should try it on Grandma.” I sidled up softly and gently touched the coat.
“It’s not like the shoes baby doll. Coats like these are a lot of money.” She looked at the price tag, trying desperately not to touch the actual fur.
Even at nine, I knew they were a lot of money, but I also knew that coat was meant for my grandma. It wouldn’t hurt her hands, it wouldn’t hurt her feet. It would just make her feel beautiful. And she usually didn’t.
“I guess it wouldn’t hurt to just try it on.” Grandma called the salesman over. He smiled at her choice, unlocked the precious piece, kindly helped Grandma into the mink, and guided her to the tri-fold mirrors. My breath caught as she turned with ease, her hands caressing the fur that, I thought, would only be worn by Minnie Hudson. Suddenly, she wasn’t my grandma anymore. Suddenly, she was just a woman staring, intently, at an alter-ego she never expected to meet. She inhaled and brought her hands to her throat.
“That mink was made for you. I’ll knock off an extra 5%,” the handsome salesman exclaimed.
Grandma’s breath caught. “I’ll take it. And I would like my initials on the lining please. When can I pick it up?” Unlike Minnie Hudson, Grandma rarely wore the mink coat in public. She had to have it, had to own something of sheer indulgence; however, she was also keenly aware of what a mink coat in a declining mountain town implied. Today, the coat hangs in my hall closet and last month, was worn for the first time in twenty years. The irony of all of this is, the coat went to me—the bleeding heart liberal of the family who would never spend a dollar on fur. But this coat—my grandma’s mink—I had to wear it. I had to feel her around me. As I slipped the mink on, the perfect embroidered letters caught my eye and I handed my phone to my husband.
“Honey. Take a picture of me so I can send it to my mom.” The camera clicked, the message sent, and it wasn’t two minutes later that my mother sent me a text back:
Here you are going to a fancy Philadelphia gala in high heels and Grandma’s mink coat. Something she would have loved to do. By the way, today is her birthday.
Jennifer Rieger is the English Department Chair at Upper Merion Area High School and teaches 12th grade Advanced Placement and creative writing courses. An advocate for her students, she dedicates her time to empowering young people through reading, writing, and acts of love. Jennifer holds a BA in English, an MA in Literature, and is currently working on her MFA at Rosemont College with a hybrid concentration in poetry and creative nonfiction. She is also the Poetry Editor for Rathalla Review Magazine.