Hanging on a hook at the back of Grandma’s bedroom door was a multi-colored “housecoat” that no one ever saw Grandma wear.
It was hideous; a yellow, orange, green, red and purple flowered, short-sleeved snap coat.
Grandma wouldn’t have been caught dead in it…so we wondered why it was always hanging on that hook and why the large front pocket was always bulging with what appeared to be “used” tissues.
In my mind, I figured she must only wear it when she had a bad cold.
Grandma was no fashion maven, but this ugly housecoat always seemed out of place to us. Its position on the bedroom-door hook indicated it was something she wore frequently, but no one had ever seen her wear it – not even when we’d drop off a pineapple pastry and the New York Times newspaper to her, early Sunday morning, so she could do the puzzle -- which she loved to do as quickly as possible, especially while munching her beloved pineapple pastry.
We all knew every inch of that tiny house, every nook and cranny; every drawer and cupboard. We knew what was in the attic crawl space and what could be found in the “sideboard” or the small drawers in her nightstand.
We knew about the shoe in the bathroom too and what was inside the shoe.
If we were going on a field trip or to the movies or to the beach or on vacation; if we showed her a good report card or if we helped her paint her porch or rake her leaves, Grandma would tell us: Get the shoe.
The shoe was a reproduction of a Victorian woman’s lace-up boot made out of pottery and painted black. Inside the shoe was a wad of fives and ones and a few tens and twenties…maybe a hundred dollars, maybe less. It seemed like a fortune to us.
She would dip into the shoe and pull out some bills and say: Here, take this and buy yourself some … (popcorn, candy, souvenirs, whatever it was that we wanted at the time ). The bills were rolled and pushed down into the shoe and they stayed rolled until you folded them lengthwise to straighten them out.
Just thinking about that shoe puts a smile on my face.
If she had reached into her purse and pulled out her wallet to hand us some money, I doubt it would have held the excitement that standing on the toilet, reaching up to the top shelf and hopping off with the shoe in our hands did for us.
We were at Grandma’s house one day and after dipping into the shoe to hand us our “salary” for picking tomatoes and watering the garden, Grandma’s doorbell rang.
It was her neighbor Michele. Born in France and having lived in the states for less than five years, Michele’s accent delighted us as did her numerous mispronunciations and general misuse of the English language. But this day wasn’t one where we could enjoy Michele’s accent as she was crying, sobbing uncontrollably.
We were quiet as Michele attempted to tell Grandma what was wrong between loud hiccups of grief…her beloved younger sister Edvige had been hit by a car while crossing a Paris street, and was on her death bed. Edvige’s fiancé had called Michele to tell her that her sister was “on death’s door,” “hanging on by a thread” with “one foot in the grave.”
(Michele actually said her sister had one foot on death’s door and was hanging on to the grave by a thread, but this time no one had any desire to giggle.)
What was intolerable for Michele to bear was the fact that she couldn’t go to Paris to visit her sister; to see her one more time, or, if the worse happened, could she afford to travel to France to go to her funeral. She was forced to stay in Connecticut while her heart, soul and mind were focused on her dying sister thousands of miles away.
Grandma hugged Michele and spoke in soft, soothing tones. We couldn’t make out what Grandma was saying until her very last words to Michele before she went out the door: Go home and pack right now.
As Michele went out the door, Grandma called to us: Would one of you please get my housecoat hanging on the back of my bedroom door?
Sure. We wondered why she wanted it – but not for long.
She reached into the pocket of the hideous housecoat and pulled out a wad of tissues.
Then she reached in again and this time pulled out a wad of money…bills and more bills but unlike the shoe, these bills had $50 and $100 on them.
“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten,” Grandma said.
She continued counting. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, two thousand,” Grandma said.
Thousand! We were stunned.
From the pocket of that old housecoat Grandma fished out two thousand dollars in hundred dollar bills. And we could see there were many rolled up bills still inside the pocket before she shoved in the wrinkled up tissues till they spilled over the pocket’s top.
Which is how Michele ended up flying to France to see her dying sister. (Who never did die though she sported a pretty deep scar on her chin for the rest of her life.) Michele used the money from Grandma’s housecoat pocket to buy her ticket.
A few months later, Grandma told us that Edvige’s fiancé had repaid Michele for her traveling expenses as he owned a popular café in the heart of Paris and was quite wealthy. Michele returned the money to Grandma and the housecoat pocket once again bulged with rolled up bills.
When Grandma got cancer and moved into the nursing home, we were left to sell her house and belongings. She told us to be sure to look in the shoe and in that housecoat pocket where we did find money, but less than she had once squirreled away, as she called it.
She must have given money to other people at different times; dipping into the shoe for small treats and into the hideous housecoat’s pocket for big problems.
When we told her about the movers coming to clear out her house she said, “Don’t forget to go into my housecoat pocket and give them a good tip for their troubles. Then keep whatever money you find and for God's sake, throw that damned housecoat out."
Which we did.