The Stole: Fiction, Memory and Unwanted Legacies

by Heather Newton

Heather Newton

Asheville author Heather Newton with one of two recently published books.

Photo by Michael Mauney

“You can have it,” says my mother.

“I don’t want it. I only want to borrow it,” I say.

I have come to visit her, trading Asheville’s cool mountains for Raleigh’s oppressive August heat. In the guest room closet is the mink stole that inspired “The Stole,” one of the linked stories in my new collection McMullen Circle. An abrasive elderly woman from our church gifted the fur to my mother in the 1970s to keep it out of the hands of her equally abrasive sister. I’m considering using it for my book events—not to wear, but as a prop. But I’m worried about the ethics of showcasing long-dead animals for a laugh.

My mother was a most unsuitable custodian for the mink. Status symbols meant nothing to her. She bragged of being the only woman to shrug off sorority rush at Duke University in 1953. She harbored a reverse snobbery for all things elitist. In her late thirties at the time of the gift, rather than attend any event that called for a fur, my mother would have preferred playing roll-to-the-bat or climbing a tree in our yard, or regaling giggling girlfriends with jokes and Blue Nun. But the donor, Mrs. G, wouldn’t take no for an answer, so the stole has lived in its box in Mom’s closet for the last fifty years.

My mother stretches and lifts the fur down from its shelf.

Memory plays tricks. My short story begins: “The mink stole, with its red satin lining, lay in its box on the bed like a piece of expensive road kill.” But when we open the box, which is smaller than I pictured, the lining is not red, but a soft brown with Mrs. G’s monogram embroidered in cursive.

Mrs. G was ancient, bent over almost double with age. When I wrote my short story, I thought I recalled that the stole had molded itself to her hump and that when my mother draped it over her shoulders it tried to bend her into the shape of Mrs. G. But when I actually examine it, the stole lies flat and supple with no kyphosis.

I ask my mother to model it. She puts it on and performs a warbly, overly-Southern rendition of the North Carolina state toast:

Heah’s to the la-und of the long leaf pine,
a Southern la-und where the sun does shine,
where the weak grow strong, and the strong grow great,
heah’s to down home, the old North State!

She swings it off her shoulders. “You can have it.”

“No thanks. I’ll bring it back when I’m done.”

My mother is not alone in owning a vintage fur she doesn’t know what to do with. There has been a glut of pelts passed down to granddaughters too uneasy to wear them. The 1980s rash of animal rights advocates splashing fake blood may have subsided, but the ostentation of appearing in fur in public still embarrasses. Some argue that since the minks in question have been dead for decades, it’s better to wear the fur than bury it in a landfill. Others fear wearing vintage fur could create demand for current manufacture. Pinterest is full of ideas for repurposing outdated furs into scarves, vests, pillows, Christmas stockings. To me, none of these are less problematic than the original, and some feel disrespectful of the animals. As for donation, there are enough old minks in circulation to supply every community theater in the U.S. several times over.

In my short story, the unwilling recipient of the mink stole sells it for $300, a good price in 1969, the year the story is set. She gets that price by flirting with a pawn shop owner. Today, even the most skilled flirting won’t net you more than that. Googling “what is my vintage mink stole worth” is bound to disappoint.

The real purpose of this visit home is to accompany my mother to a neurology appointment. We set the mink by the door so I won’t forget it when I leave, and drive to the doctor’s office, where I watch her take a cognitive assessment. She zips through some tasks but struggles with language and short term memory. It is painful to witness.

As the neurologist goes over the results, my mother tries to divert, playing the clown. The young doctor is not distracted.

“Have other people in your family been diagnosed with dementia?” the doctor asks.

“My mother,” says my mother.

“But she was in her nineties by then,” I say.

“It’s not unusual for it to show up earlier in subsequent generations.” The doctor recommends a medicine that might help symptoms but not slow the progression, an MRI to rule out the minuscule chance of a treatable condition. She does not expect either to change the diagnosis.

On the ride home my mother speaks up. “Well, I’m not afraid.” I think of another visit, in my twenties, when I backed my car over her cable box as I left, cracking it in two and exposing the wires. When the cable guy knocked on her door to ask if she knew what had happened, she had my back: “It looks like somebody ran over it!”

“There’s no need to be afraid,” I tell her. “You’re safe and your children will take care of you.”

At her house, my mother checks her mail while I lift the stole from its box. I still can’t decide if I’ll take it for show-and-tell when I read from McMullen Circle at book events. I want to talk about my book, not field judgy questions about the murder of innocent animals. I want any audience to focus on questions that matter.

To me, the stole seems to be in good condition. There can’t have been many days in Raleigh cold enough for Mrs. G to wear it. It is soft to the touch but coarse, a cross between my orange tabby cat and a koala I held once in Australia who smelled of eucalyptus leaves. I see no rips or bald spots, no shedding, but I have read that even under glossy fur, if the leather is dried out the fur can split and tear in the middle of the skins, irreparable.

I could run my fingers through the pelt searching for holes. Bunch the leather in my fist to listen for the crunch of dry rot. I choose not to, because it wouldn’t change the outcome.

My mother returns from the mailbox. The white tear-away strip from a junk envelope looks like teeth. She sticks it in her mouth and leers at me to make me laugh.

At the neurology appointment, the young doctor said something that reminded my mother of a song and she burst out singing. I don’t remember the lyric that triggered it. “Daisy” was one of the series of words she was supposed to recall but didn’t, so perhaps that’s what the neurologist mentioned, prompting Mom to belt, “Daisy, daisy, give me your answer, do.”

“She’s always sung at the drop of a hat like that,” I explained. “It isn’t new.”

“Thank you for letting me know,” the doctor said.

My mother removes soggy cardboard from her mouth. “You can have that stole,” she says.

Heather Newton is the author of the short story collection McMullen Circle (Regal House 2022), finalist for the W.S. Porter prize. Her novel The Puppeteer’s Daughters is forthcoming from Turner Publishing in July 2022 and has been optioned for television. Her novel Under The Mercy Trees (HarperCollins 2011) won the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award, was chosen by the Women’s National Book Association as a Great Group Reads Selection and named an “Okra Pick” by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. A practicing attorney, she teaches creative writing for UNC-Asheville’s Great Smokies Writing Program and is co-founder and Program Manager for the Flatiron Writers Room writers’ center in Asheville.