Recently, it occurred to me that my 12 year old son Theo needed a new winter coat when he came home from school with a giant rip in the arm of his old one. He had no idea how this happened (typical). Given that Theo is now in middle school, it triggered visions of bullies from 1980’s movies laughing and pointing at “ripped coat boy”.
Could not let that happen. So, off we went to a local outdoorsy outfitter place for a new coat. Along for the ride was 16 year old Sophia whose eyes are activated to roll by anything Theo does about every 15 minutes.
We walked into the store and we were immediately aided by a helpfully helpful employee who saw it as his life’s mission to get this boy a new coat. Theo made a beeline for what looked like the parka that might have been worn by explorer Sir Edmund Hillary in the men’s section. “I LOVE IT. This one.” Mr. Helpful laughed a little uncomfortably. “Ha Ha. Yes, everyone loves to try that one on.”
Which I immediately took to mean that the Sir Edmund Hillary coat was something aspirational, not something to really buy, but nonetheless, I asked, “Out of curiosity, how much is it?”. Again a nervous laugh. “Six hundred and forty nine dollars”. I barked “Theo take that coat off right now before you rip a hole into it!” “But I LOVE IT”. I peeled the pricey coat off his squirming body and physically moved him to the sale section in the back.
The next coat Theo saw looked like a junior version of the Sir Edmund Hillary coat (at a fraction of the cost). Giant fur hood. Puffy beyond belief. He put it on and looked like a mini-Michelin Man. Mr. Helpful noted to Theo “check out the built in face mask!”. SOLD. Theo had a new love. “Mom. This is THE COAT. This is the one I want”.
Sophia was not pleased. “Mom, he looks so chubby in that coat”. She used all of her cool teen powers to try to dissuade her brother. She went and found several others that she deemed “so much better”. “Look– this one is kind of retro” (as if Theo could care). She called her University of Michigan sister Tasia and persuaded her to stop studying for her Organic Chemistry test, and come to the store to join the “stop the puffy grey coat effort”.
Time slowed and we found ourselves in an immense dressing room surrounded by eight other coats and THE ONE. Mr. Helpful apologized. He had to go off shift, and so, with a sad smile, he transferred us to a colleague (Mr. Somewhat Helpful). I found myself in the middle of CoatGate, between two sisters (correct that Theo looked more fashionable in some of the alternatives) and Theo (who kept joyfully going back to THE ONE).
Finally, my husband was called (in the middle of his commute home from work. I am sure he was thrilled to mediate CoatGate as he fought rush hour traffic). He weighed in with a solemn but firm voice: “Let the boy have the coat he wants”.
Theo did a quick jig and asked Mr. Somewhat Helpful if he could “wear his coat out of the store”. Theo’s eyes lit up at the “yes”, and he was further delighted that he could donate his old coat to the bin next to the checkout.
In all, we had been there for more than two hours.
In the aftermath of CoatGate 2016, I found myself remembering another CoatGate, long ago. This one occurred in the 1980’s with my Greek grandmother Yia Yia Mina. I was dispatched by my mom to take Yia Yia to a department store, to “get her a new winter coat”. Easy, I thought, she’d pick one out and I’d be back home to hang out with my friends in no time.
Not so fast.
It turns out, while someone like Theo falls fast and hard for a coat, Yia Yia was one to play hard to get. It was already a bit of an uphill battle because she was so petite (under 4 feet 11). But she was also an extreme perfectionist. No coat was good enough.
“Eleni (my Greek name), this one has ugly buttons”. “Eleni, this one has a pocket that I don’t like”. “Eleni, I don’t like the way this one zips”. “Eleni, I would like this one if it had a different collar.” We were there for HOURS. Coats were ceremoniously brought out by hopeful saleswomen. And rejected. FINALLY, she found one she liked. But of course, it would have to be altered to fit her tiny frame AND she would change the buttons.
So, in a way, picking out a winter coat may be kind of a personality test.
Theo is a kid who is joyful and quirky. He dances to the beat of his own drummer whether people think it’s cool or not. He found the coat that met his needs, and would not be dissuaded come hell or high water.
My Yia Yia was definitely a perfectionist. She had high standards for others, but most of all for herself. As an immigrant, this is how she succeeded. But she was also a strong, powerful woman who felt good about herself. So, even in her old age (when many of her Greek female peers were wearing black from head to toe), she felt she was “worth it”, not settling for something that she didn’t feel comfortable in (no matter how many Xanax the saleswomen had to take).
Recently, I realized that after wearing the same winter coat for years, I was ready for a new one. And strangely enough, I found one quickly (like Theo) but it was also pretty perfect in terms of all of its features—best of all being very slimming on me!
Theo definitely likes it, and I’d like to think that Yia Yia would approve too.