Jewish Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter


         

Jewish Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter

 
 
 
 

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How I Got My Mink Stole

By Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Excerpted from her memoirs,
Eat First--You Don't Know What They'll Give You,
The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter

In the '50s, in the world that I knew and read about, the ultimate in fur was mink. Potentates of exotic foreign countries gave them to their mistresses; Hollywood producers gave them to their favorite starlets; and successful garment manufacturers bought them for their wives. I didn't get my mink stole that way. My mother got it for me -- and she didn't get it from a foreign potentate but from the man in our house who was the source of all our possessions, my father. It took her ten years.

After my parents bought our house in North Miami Beach, Florida, in 1954, Mother began to talk about a mink stole. This was unusual for her; I couldn't recall her ever before expressing an interest in clothes for herself. Our picture album showed she had been an elegant, fashionable woman in Berlin, Germany, but that had been years ago. In the United States, her life was different. Her life here focused on her husband, her children, and her home. Her mission was nurturing, a goal she warmly embraced. Clothes were something she needed only to take care of her real priorities.

But in the late '50s, Mother began to ask Father for a mink stole. Perhaps it was only natural. Miami Beach was the second home of the mink. No respectable garment manufacturer's wife or mistress would think of setting foot in that oasis of affluence without some type of mink draped about her shoulders. It just wasn't done. And my mother, unlike these visitors, wasn't just down for two weeks or even for the whole sizzen. She lived there. Furthermore, my father could well afford the $500 or $l,000 that a mink stole cost in those days, so why not?

"Why not?" was that my father didn't embark upon a course of action simply because all rational reasons pointed in that direction. That wasn't his style. That didn't require any gumption. On the contrary, it was going against the tide that showed a man's strength. If everything pointed one way, dafke -- for spite -- Father went the other. So when it came to buying Mother a mink stole, Father refused.

There followed a series of arguments and rationalizations. Mother pointed out that she needed a stole to go to the synagogue; so Father discontinued what was already his very limited synagogue attendance. Mother invited Aunt Sarah from Philadelphia to visit us. Since Sarah was related to us on Father's side of the family, her arguments in favor of Mother's having a mink stole should have carried considerable weight. Father negated that ploy, too, by pointing out that Aunt Sarah herself didn't have a mink stole.

At times, Father took the initiative. "You'll get a mink stole when Sonia gets married," he'd say. "You'll have a mink stole for the wedding." (He was on pretty safe ground here since I was already in my late twenties at this time, with no serious suitor in sight.) "After all," he continued, "what kind of mother would you be careering around Miami Beach covered in furs when your only daughter is still single?" This was a double whammy for Mother: not only was she told she wouldn't be getting a fur stole in the near future; she was also reminded that her only daughter was still unmarried. Nonetheless, Mother stood her ground. She pointed out that with my law school education not even half-completed, with my ambitions for a career in the future, and with my lack of current suitors, my chances of an imminent marriage were dim -- and she needed a stole now.

Undaunted, my father then played the "Jewish homeland" card. "Why should I spend money on a mink stole when we could put the money to better use for a trip to Israel, see what's doing over there, and visit my brother, Iser?" This approach was flawed because Mother, the keeper of the family finances, knew that Father could easily afford both the stole and the trip to Israel. Rather than getting into an argument about finances, however, Mother was quick to agree that a trip to Israel made sense, and said she'd be delighted to accompany Father on such a voyage. To which Father replied, "Israel? What for do I need Israel? What, am I crazy to go down there with those Araber --Arabs -- shooting at Jews all the time? A man has to be crazy to go down there. Takes his life in his hands." And then, figuratively draping the American flag around himself, he continued, "Why should I go to Israel when I haven't seen my own country yet. First, we'll go to California. After Sonia's married. Then, maybe later, when things have calmed down there, we'll go to Israel." And so it went. He had succeeded in completely changing the subject.

We entered the next phase when my brother Hermann bought his wife Helen a mink stole and, being a loving son, bought my mother one, too. When Dad came home that night and saw Mother cavorting in her slip and mink stole, he was livid. Imagine the nerve of that son of his! Trying to show up his own father. He could afford to buy a stole for his own wife if she needed one. He didn't need his son to buy it for him. But the thing was -- his wife didn't need a stole. Had no use for one. He advised Mother once and for all to decide whether she wanted a stole or a husband. With that, Father stormed out of the house, and Mother reluctantly returned the stole to Hermann.

I learned about the next act of this drama when Mother came to visit me several years later in Washington, DC, bearing in her hands a horrible white piece of fake fur. It seemed that Father, on his own volition, had bought it for her. It was made of some sort of cheap synthetic material and was the sort of froufrou one associates with streetwalkers. Father had seen it in the window of a storefront on the Lower East Side. He thought he might make it up to Mother with this offering after all their arguments about a mink stole. Mother wanted to know if I had a cleaning woman to whom I could give this fur piece since she wouldn't be caught dead wearing it in Miami Beach. I told her no self-respecting cleaning woman would wear this item and suggested she return it to Father with her compliments.

When Father got this fur piece back ("What's wrong with it? Looks just like a mink stole to me."), he realized that the jig was up. He had tried everything. He then quietly went to one of the finest furriers in Miami Beach and bought Mother her stole -- a beautiful gray-white fur. Let the neighbors see that his wife could look good, too.

When Mother saw this beautiful fur -- which she'd fought for for so many years -- she exclaimed, "A stole? What do I need that for? An old woman like me? Do I need it to do the dishes? To carry out the garbitch? To go to the synagogue with those yentes? (They had resumed their sporadic synagogue attendance.) What do I need a fur stole for when my child is freezing in Washington?" Father was nonplused at this reaction, but, before too much time had passed, he was driving Mother to the post office, where she could ship the stole to me "freezing in Washington." She then accompanied him to the synagogue for Friday night services, in her cloth coat, which was "more than good enough for those yentes."

I never figured out whether this result had been in back of Mother's mind all along, or whether she had simply embarked upon a battle with my father that she was determined to win, only to find when she did, that it was the battle and not the prize that was significant. At any rate, that's how I got my mink stole -- not from a foreign potentate or a lovesick swain -- but from a battle waged by my mother and won over tremendous odds. I was proud to wear it.

-- Visit Sonia Pressman Fuentes at her website: http://www.erraticimpact.com/~feminism/html/sonia_ pressman_fuentes.htm
Buy her memoirs in paperback or hardback from www.xlibris.com or as an e-book from www.wordwrangler.com
This story was first published on February 2, 1996, in the Jewish Frontier and then on May 22, 1998, online at jewishinternet.com

from the January 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

 

 

 

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