My l4-year-old son, John, and I spotted the coat simultaneously. It was hanging on a rack at a secondhand clothing store in Northampton Mass, crammed in with shoddy trench coats and an assortment of sad, woolen overcoats — a rose among thorns.
While the other coats drooped, this one looked as if it were holding itself up. The thick, black wool of the double-breasted chesterfield was soft and unworn, as though it had been preserved in mothballs for years in dead old Uncle Henry’s steamer trunk. The coat had a black velvet collar, beautiful tailoring, a Fifth Avenue label and an unbelievable price of $28. We looked at each other, saying nothing, but John’s eyes gleamed. Dark, woolen topcoats were popular just then with teenage boys, but could cost several hundred dollars new. This coat was even better, bearing that touch of classic elegance from a bygone era.
John slid his arms down into the heavy satin lining of the sleeves and buttoned the coat. He turned from side to side, eyeing himself in the mirror with a serious, studied expression that soon changed into a smile. The fit was perfect.
John wore the coat to school the next day and came home wearing a big grin. “Ho. did the kids like your coat?” I asked. “They loved it,” he said, carefully folding it over the back of a chair and smoothing it flat. I started calling him “Lord Chesterfield” and “The Great Gatsby.”
Over the next few weeks, a change came over John. Agreement replaced contrariness, quiet, reasoned discussion replaced argument. He became more judicious, more mannerly, more thoughtful, eager to please. “Good dinner, Mom,” he would say every evening.
He would generously loan his younger brother his tapes and lecture him on the niceties of behaviour; without a word of objection, he would carry in wood for the stove. One day when I suggested that he might start on homework before dinner, John — a veteran procrastinator