Mom’s Coat

Zelda was dreaming. Deep inside the dream’s universe she had a vague awareness of the real world beyond and outside the dream.

“Come on girls. Your dad is waiting in the car?”

Her mother was young and strong and Zelda felt tiny.

“That coat?” Her old sister shook her head. “Mom you can’t wear that coat.”

“And why not?” Sylvia replied.

“You know why… The fur collar, the…”

The skinny ten-year-old Zelda listened to her fourteen-year-old sister whine and argue with their mother. The car horn put an end to the discussion. It was time to go to the synagogue. The high holy days were the only time that Martin was accompanied by his wife and daughters. They had to be on time.

Was it a memory or a dream? Or both? It didn’t matter.


Zelda woke up. She’d fallen asleep on her sister’s sofa after a long day of packing, sorting, and unpacking. Zelda finally understood why their father never had the energy to clean out Sylvia’s things. For three years he’d talked about her books, her clothes, her cello, her sheet music, and all the vestiges of a long life, well led. He gave his daughters his late wife’s jewelry and a few practical bits and pieces, and promised that he’d get to the rest one day. But that day never came.

“You’re awake—finally! Are you hungry?” Anastasia asked. “You’ve been out cold for an hour.”

“Only an hour?” Zelda sighed. “I was dreaming about mom and her crazy coat.”

Anastasia laughed.

“Let’s go out to dinner. We both need a break from all this shit!”


But a real break wasn’t possible. Both sisters were consumed with the process and Zelda was particularly distressed by how the rich lives of her parents were reduced to long lists of thing to do. The sisters divided the project along lines meant to take advantage of their unique skill sets. Anastasia, an attorney, focused her attention on the estate lawyer, the real estate attorney, the accountant, the banker, and the real estate agent. She sat at her desk and made calls, sent letters, demanded action, overnighted notarized papers, and closed accounts with death certificates.

Zelda, a violinist and professor of musicology, was in charge of stuff. She arranged to donate Sylvia’s cello to a music school; distributed her library of sheet music to local teachers and musicians; she sold the baby grand; she hired an expert to go through thousands of books (finding valuable first editions among the popular fiction); she sent sentimental photos to relatives and old friends; she searched through jacket pockets finding money and subway tokens; she emptied desk drawers and file cabinets, finding birth certificates, expired passports, school report cards, and wedding invitations; she crated the vinyl recordings and found dealers for most of them; she packed and delivered boxes of dishes to charities; she bagged mountains of clothes and sent them to charity thrift shops; she hired a neighbor’s son to mow the lawn, shovel the driveway, and make sure the pipes didn’t burst during the winter; she sold the car; she hired an estate sale company to clean out the last of the furniture; and she watched as the Sylvia’s sofa, the piano bench, the kitchen table, Martin’s desk, and the dining room chairs marched out the door during the big estate sale.

Zelda’s job was harder—physically and emotionally. She was also stronger than her older sister, built like their elegant and statuesque mother with broad shoulders, long legs, and perfect posture. She swam laps, biked for miles, and told her students at the university that exercise made her a better musician. It gave her the endurance, discipline, and patience that art required.

But cleaning out the house pushed her to the edge.

Her head was filled with objects and potential destinations. Her dreams were filled with Sylvia’s musical critiques and Martin’s disappointment when she declined to go to Hebrew school.

“I wanted celebrate at least one Bat Mitzvah.” He sighed. “You two are both like your mother, so like her…”

But they weren’t, not really. Anastasia looked like Martin’s side of the family. She was short and round, with an open smile and a quick wit. She could carry a tune, but that’s where her musical talent ended. While Zelda followed her mother into music, Anastasia became successful in business law. She was practical, funny and self-deprecating. Three things Sylvia never was…

Sylvia enjoyed her reputation as an eccentric and embarrassed her first child with her outrageous fashion sense and stern rebukes of everything that was conventional. She served ox tail soup, chicken paprikash, seafood paella, spatzle, goulash, dandelion greens, jambalaya, peanut stew, and sushi to children and adults alike. She was a fabulous cook and a generous hostess, but she didn’t have patience for picky eaters or fussy people. She brought musicians from all over the world into their suburban home for impromptu concerts and all-night parties.

Most of the time, Anastasia wanted an ordinary mother. A stay-at-home, baking cookies mom or a mom with a conventional job—like a teacher or a bookkeeper—she suffered when friends refused to come over after Sylvia served the squid ink pasta instead of the white spaghetti they ate at home.

Zelda was more in tune with their mother’s eccentricities, less embarrassed, but no less aware of her extraordinary choices. She wondered for years how and why her talented and determined mother never became a cellist on the order of Pablo Casals or a Jacqueline du Pré. Was it the sacrifices she’d made to be a wife and mother? As an adult, Zelda understood that Sylvia’s accomplishments were significant and that her choices may have hampered her, but the family wasn’t to blame for her smaller scale career in string quartets and regional orchestras. World-class success in music was hard and rare. Sylvia had done well in the overall scheme of things.

“Ready for dinner?” Anastasia called out from the other room.

Zelda pulled herself off the sofa. She was bone tired. The marathon of the last few months left her feeling drained. It was like doing a 100-mile bike ride every day for months on end, she had nothing left in reserve. She was always on the verge of tears and always aware of everyone else’s feelings, and worst of all she felt the loss of her parents more acutely than she did at their funerals. Now that the house was gone, now that the cello was gone, now that the books, music, paella pans, coffee pots, desk lamps, wine glasses, and the rest were history, there was nothing left—just Anastasia and Zelda—A to Z, and a large pot of money to invest when the buyer’s check cleared.

“Italian, French or Persian?” Anastasia asked as they headed out on the avenue.


“It’s interesting, sort of middle eastern with pomegranate seeds.”

“French, then. I’m not feeling experimental.”

Two sips into her glass of Cote du Rhone and Zelda began to relax.

“What are you going to do?”

Anastasia verbalized the large question that had consumed them for months. What are you going to do with the money? Are you going to buy an apartment? Travel? Change you life?

“I’m not sure,” Zelda replied. “I like my apartment. I don’t need someplace bigger, but sometimes I’d like to entertain. Have more than six people over for dinner or invite one of my friends from Europe to stay for a week or two, or…”

“You sound like mom.”

“Yes, I’d like to make paella for a crowd.”

“The chicken paprikash was the best. Perfect for big parties.”

“The coat? I didn’t see the coat! Did the estate sale people get that coat?” Zelda was suddenly hit with a wave of anxiety, bordering on terror. The coat, with its fur lining and collar, infuriated her sister and started arguments that often ended in Sylvia saying, ‘I bought the coat long after the minks were dead, Ana. I found it in a shop in Paris and it was old and used then. The minks didn’t die a second time because I bought a used fur coat.’

“Zelda, breathe… The coat is at the cleaners. I took it months ago. It’ll be ready for you in a couple of days.”

“For me?”

“I can’t wear it…”

It was true. Anastasia was the wrong size and shape for Sylvia’s coat. She called it her Russian coat because it was cut like a costume a cossack might wear in a production of Boris Godunov. It was made of heavy silk brocade with embroidered accents, and cut with angular shoulders, a tailored waist and an A-line drape to a mid-calf length. It was lined with mink and trimmed at the collar and cuffs.

“The fur on the collar and cuffs is coming off, but the inside fur is OK. It’ll be done and ready for you soon.”

“I thought we’d lost Mom’s coat.”