by Kristy Gherlone
“Mom, you gave me an extra again,” Katie said as she placed the last setting at the table, only to realize she still had a plate in her hand.
She glanced briefly, but painfully, towards her dad’s chair. Her heart squeezed at the sight. His olive colored winter coat, puffy with downy feathers still hung over the back as if at any moment he’d be coming in to put it on.
“Just habit, I guess. I’m sorry. Bring it here,” her mom said.
Katie, lost in a memory, didn’t hear her.
“What do you want for Christmas daddy?” Katie, at fifteen, had asked her dad that year. She’d taken a part time job a few weeks before, and was proud that she’d finally be able to purchase the gifts for Christmas all on her own.
She didn’t know, at the time, how tight her parents’ budget was, and what a relief it was for them. She couldn’t know. Her dad never deprived her of anything and never let on how much he went without sometimes.
“Oh, I don’t know. How about a tin of those peach blossoms I like?”
“But daddy, I meant a real gift. I always get you candy. I want to get you something you really want.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t want you spending your money on me. Save it up! Get yourself something special,” he’d said, ruffling her hair as he headed off for work.
She’d had to ask her mom later what he wanted.
“Well, you know… there’s this coat he’s been wanting. He saw it in the Sears and Roebucks. Said it looked real warm. Supposed to be filled with goose feathers or some foolishness, but don’t worry about it. His coat’ll do another year. That one’s too expensive, in my opinion. Ninety-nine dollars!” Her mother clucked and shook her head.
Katie knew the coat he had been wearing was dangerously worn out. Many years of harsh Maine winters and several dozen washings had left it thin and faded, but he never complained no matter how cold it got. He used to say, ‘I’m tough I is I am I are, and when I’m mad I spits tar.’ It used to make Katie giggle when she was little, and her eyes roll when she got older.
He probably could have bought a new coat the year before with the money he had in savings, but Katie had needed braces.
“Ninety-nine dollars?” Katie asked nervously. She had one hundred and fifty saved up. Ninety-nine was a lot of money… Nearly all of her Christmas budget.
“Yeah. That’s why I said don’t worry about it. He’ll manage.”
Her mom had married him when Katie was just eight years old, so he wasn’t her real dad then. He’d only become he real dad by the way he treated her, and by the way her heart felt about him. He became as real as anyone else’s. They’d been so poor before. Never enough food, or anything else for that matter. He’d taken them in, and treated her like she was his very own daughter. That first Christmas he’d bought her every single thing she’d scribbled down on her list. She knew he wanted her to know how loved she was and that she’d never have to worry again.
Katie went off in search of the catalogue and looked it up. It was nice. It was rated to forty-five below. He could use that, working outside like he did a lot of the time. He was getting old. His hair, gone gray years before, had thinned to unmanageable wisps, and his hands, all gnarly from arthritis, could barely hold a wrench anymore. She knew the cold bothered him, though he’d never admit it.
Katie studied the picture again.
Ninety-nine dollars! She sucked in her breath. It was a lot of money. There were so many things she could buy with that!
Without any more hesitation, Katie called the number on the catalogue.
Christmas morning, she watched as he opened the big brown box. She’d never seen him cry before, but as he unwrapped the tissue paper and pulled the coat out of the box, his eyes were misty. He choked up as he reached over to hug and thank her.
He wore that coat every winter day until the last one, and every time he put it on, he’d say the same thing, “Boy oh boy this is a nice coat. So sturdy and warm.”
“Katie! I said bring it here!” Her mom’s voice, tinged with annoyance, brought her back to the present.
Katie snapped to and handed the plate back to her mother.
She turned around and went over to her dad’s chair. She ran her hand over the soft fabric of the coat. She lifted it up and held it to her nose, breathing in deeply.
It smelled of tobacco and mint. Of wood shavings and oil. There was a whiff of coffee and just a hint of cologne. Everything that was her dad was captured in that coat. There were a thousand memories wrapped up in there; of him pulling her on the sled, the year he taught her to drive a snow mobile, that fall he took her hunting, and of him chopping down countless Christmas trees. The threads that ran through the length of that coat, holding it together, were like the threads of their relationship. Sturdy. Just like her love for him would always be, even though he was gone.
“I can put it away in the closet if it will make you feel any better,” her mom said.
“No, don’t!” Katie said quickly. After all, she liked to pretend too.
There would always be a place at the table, even if only in their memories