Red River Coats
It must be fall because it’s cold enough to wear a coat, and it must be a Sunday because the Red River Coat is only for church. And I must have been ten or eleven, because that was around the time my mother’s mental health took a turn for the worse. At least that’s when I’d started to notice that things weren’t quite right. Possibly it coincided with the summer my two oldest sisters moved out and I no longer had any buffers, or surrogate moms to take care of me.
If my mother had been more on top of things that year, the Red River coat would have been stored in the cedar closet, and not in the armoire in the bedroom I shared with the older sister who hadn’t left home yet. There were no closets in our house, an 1840 farm house that had never been “renovated.”
The Red River Coat was an almost black navy wool melton, shaped like a pea coat, with a red stripe down the side, a loose hood with red flannel lining, and a long and thick red knitted sash knotted at the waist. It’s said to have originally been created by the Metis – the mixed-race French and Indigenous people living on the prairies. The thick wool material kept out the prairie cold but the red sash and leggings were pure show, a French touch.
There were three such coats in our house. My mother liked having her children to match – as if people wouldn’t know we were all from the same brood – but it was also a common practice at the time to have children in matching outfits. Thankfully, the fashion trend of matching mom-daughter outfits hadn’t caught on in our family.
All three coats would have been purchased around 1952 for my three older sisters. Lucky for my brother, the matching trend was usually restricted to same gender kids, so he had his own clothes and no hand-me-downs. Except the one time when my mother couldn’t resist – there is photographic proof of it. In it, he stands a foot apart from my three older sisters, all of them on the lawn in front of trees just starting to turn colour. They all wear identical blue blazers; the girls in MacDonald plaid kilts, and my brother, in matching plaid shorts.
By the mid 1960s I had started wearing whichever Red River Coat fit me. My older sisters had long outgrown them. (I, too, wore the MacDonald kilts, without the blazers which were too motheaten by then). My younger sister as well, but she grew so fast, she was in and out of them in no time.
As you can imagine, we stood out at school, and even at church. Nobody knew what a Red River Coat was much less wore one. Although occasionally, some silver-haired, powdered, and erect Anglican lady in a fur coat would come up and remark how nice it was to see young people wearing such respectable clothing.
There’s one photo of me wearing the coat but the red wool toque that matched the stripe and the sash had disappeared, so I had on a scrunched-up velvet tam. The get up was quaint, a curious blend of Depression-era and something uniquely Canadian. I stood in stark contrast to my trendy 1960s school friends with their go-go boots, fringed belly tops, and the latest offerings from Pennyworth’s.
That autumn Sunday when I took the coat out to put on for the first time, the sleeves were shorter, the boiled wool scratching the skin above my wrists. When I put my hand in the pocket, I felt the hole, and the remnants of a paper serviette, stained dark from the date square or pecan cookie I must have tucked away from church coffee hour. Since my mother was so strict about consuming sugar, we kids (and even my father with his sweet tooth) made a beeline for the coffee hour table after church. What I couldn’t cram in my mouth of those tantalizing treats – rainbow marshmallow brownies, chocolate confetti squares, marshmallow yule logs – I jammed in pockets for later.
Tiny cut-outs in the coat’s dark navy cloth and the shredded serviette made it clear a mouse had polished off the date square tucked in there. It wasn’t having mice chew holes that surprised me – you could hear them racing up and down the walls all night. It was shocking that I’d have forgotten the sugary morsel.
Published Sept 8, 2022, in Star *82 review.
Alex Newman is a freelance writer and editor living in Toronto. For the past 35 years, she has written for the dailies, national consumer publications, produced reality TV, researched documentaries. Lately she’s been writing memoirish pieces about growing up on a chicken farm in the tiny hamlet of Fairport Beach, 20 miles east of Toronto. With a minister-farmer-classics scholar father and a mentally unwell addicted mother, five siblings, a cow, 1500 chickens, barn cats, mangy dogs, a pony rescued from the glue factory, and a house straight out of Miss Havisham’s imagination. alexnewmanwriter.com