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Image Left: The Fur Coat, oil on canvas by Carl Gordon Cutler (1873 - 1945) From the Clarke Gallery.
It was already a uniquely Canadian portrait before I stumbled into it: Downtown Kingston lit up with Christmas lights, snow gently falling, and skaters going around the rink at market square. But the photographer paused, waiting for the unwitting focal point to enter the frame: a giant bear of a woman, ambling down the sidewalk in a rustic fur coat.
The tourist couple spoke no English, but they were fascinated by me and my coat. After a vigorous bout of sign language, I finally understood they wanted me in the shot. Glad to oblige, I stepped back, smiled wide and struck a pose.
The coat has been mine for several years, but I still call it Malgorzata's coat. My neighbour, who is Polish, brought me the great mountain of mink on a scorching July day. I thought she was being satirical, but soon discovered she was serious.
"You want me to wear it?" I said, perplexed, accepting the complicated hand-me-down with an air of reluctance -- I had my own problems with fur and what can happen to someone who dares to wear it.
The portrait had been no less Canadian the January morning, in 2002, when I boarded the 501 streetcar in the Beaches in Toronto: Rush hour commuters doing the Queen Street lean, strained necks angled towards Neville Park, anxiously awaiting the red rocket, stomping their feet to stay warm.
I was wearing another second-hand fur that day -- a gift from my Aunt in Sault Ste. Marie. But on this occasion I came into a very different focus.
When the young woman boarded the streetcar near Broadview Avenue and caught a glimpse of me, her expression turned sour. There was hatred in her eyes that I felt like a stab in the gut. She glared at me as she walked by. The streetcar rolled on and I thought the evil eye was the end of it, but the woman had timed her public tirade to coincide with her stop, and a quick exit. At first I heard shouting and turned to see what was the matter; only then did I realize she was yelling at me.
She didn't throw paint or tomato juice. Words were her weapon of choice. It was the classic urban shaming complete with a riveted, captive, audience. The deafening sound of blood rushing through my ears rendered much of the verbal assault inaudible. Worst of all was the sense of exile -- watching my fellow passengers turn away. The expressions on the faces of those who continued to look were accusatory, "You asked for it!"
With this old memory still fresh in my mind, the fortunes of Malgorzata's coat remained unchanged for two more winters. It hung in my closet as a shroud of controversy, saying more about the ferocity and unpredictability of public opinion than anything.
"I don't think I should tell you what the feels-like temperature is," my husband said one morning last December. He was about to drive away in our only car. Redacting the daily forecast was his way of sparing me the mental anguish of an arctic-like winter.
If I didn't want to be under house arrest I had to walk. That's when the fur started telling the other side of its story: Cold country, warm coat.
I posted my "to wear or not to wear" dilemma on Facebook and got one definitive "Don't!" arguing the general wrongness of fur, and that exceptions should only be made for "104-year-old New York socialites and people who live above the tree line."
The comment that best captured how I felt, though, went like this: "When something is already in existence we are duty-bound to use it, re-purpose it, or allow it to continue to serve its purpose." Seeing the fur go unused for so long had started to feel incredibly wasteful. What would mamusia and patus say?
That's when the fur coat and I took a long walk together. And we've been walking, because of and in spite of the cold, ever since.
Malgorzata's coat is beautiful, but it isn't pretty. It's not a night at the opera or fashion show fur. It draws a lot of gawking and questioning and has been mistaken for everything from squirrel to muskrat, to bear -- even buffalo. The children at my son's school often ask if they can pet it and a woman at the coffee shop recently said she wanted to give me a hug. "You look so warm," she said. "I am," I replied.
And then there was my encounter with the tourists in Kingston. I often think of the photo that was taken that night. From their perspective, the picture tells a simple, great Canadian story.
From my perspective, it's a frame story that encompasses many interconnected narratives about fur and its tenuous place in our culture. That story, of course, is anything but simple.
Michelle Hauser is a former professional fundraiser turned humorist and freelance writer. She lives in Eastern Ontario (Canada) with her husband Mark and their son Joseph. Please click here to sign up for her monthly Newsletter.