‘Can You Keep a Secret?’
A Boomer reader recalls a small secret with a deep impact
Colin M. Kelly’s mother whispered, “Can you keep a secret?” She had a smile of pride and confidence, devoid of worry and stress. Kelly shares the story of that holiday night, of what her secret meant then – and later.
It was in the late 70’s, I was still in college, in the middle of my sophomore year. At this point in my life I was struggling to balance study time with social time and the ever-pressing work time needed to pay for college. For various reasons I found myself at home that New Year’s Eve night.
Home was two acres with a farmhouse built in the 1800s that my mom had designated Windrift Acres. Funny how poor people can find ways to pretend they are rich. It sat on a dirt road that was least one mile from our nearest neighbor and two miles to the nearest paved road. I was sitting in Dad’s chair in front of the TV in the well-named family room. The family room was a 15-by-30-foot addition my father (and the boys) built onto the side of the old farmhouse before we moved in, about 10 years earlier. For most families this room would seem huge, oversized, out of place, but for the Kelly family, with nine children, it was not too big, not too small, just right, as Goldilocks would say.
I had no problem agreeing with Mom to stay home and babysit the rest of the Kelly family while she and Dad went out to their annual New Year’s Eve party with their high school friends in Scranton. Tonight, I only had four to watch over; the others had moved out or had left for other parties. I was sitting in Dad’s chair, which was in itself a rarity – much like Archie Bunker from All in the Family or Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory, you would rarely sit in this spot, especially after dinner, knowing that eventually you’d be unceremoniously kicked out of it.
The family room was still set up from Christmas. The tree was still decorated with the Christmas ornaments and lights and with Mom’s beloved silver icicles – the ones that have to be placed one painstaking individual icicle at a time on the tree. The smell of Christmas was still in the air.
I had a strong fire going in the fireplace. It was cold outside, probably in the teens, a typical winter for the Poconos. It looked like a nice peaceful evening; an event seldom experienced in a household of 11.
Dad had stepped out to start the car and warm it up, when Mom stepped out from the kitchen into the family room all dressed up for a well-deserved night on the town. She was putting on her overcoat, when I looked up from my chair and said, “When did you get that fancy new coat?” She leaned into me and said, “Can you keep a secret?” I nodded and then she said, “This is your old blanket from your bed. I thought the wool was in great shape so I dyed it navy blue, bought a sewing pattern, and made this coat. Do you like the buttons I picked out?”
At that moment I saw a face I rarely saw in my mother, one of pride and confidence, one without the worry and stress of raising nine children. Life had dealt her an odd hand, with nine children and a household budget just above the poverty level, and she seemed to be on an endless treadmill of finding ways to make ends meet. But she was never depressed or angry by this situation – she took it all in stride with a positive, optimistic attitude. And here she was, so proud of herself that she had turned essentially a rag into a “fancy new coat.”
She went on to show me the stitching and described how challenging it was with her meek little sewing machine to get through the thick wool, and how hard it was to cut and sew the collar, lapels, and pockets. It had a traditional wool walker coat style, with a loose belt. Clearly, she was in her moment, so proud of what she had accomplished and my compliment. Of course, she was hoping that her friends that she saw that night would also have the same impression.
With that she knew she was running late, so she pulled on her gloves, said “Goodnight, we’ll be back after 1,” then, she was out the door.
It wasn’t until her passing that I would recall that moment and let it sink in: a few years older, married, and having two children to raise, it exposed a whole new level of appreciation. I had seen my mom sew curtains for essentially every room in the house, sew patches on pants that were second or third time hand-me-downs. She made more than a few pillows and cushions and even a few dresses for the girls. She had sewn on numerous Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts badges and patched up numerous uniforms and jerseys. But in all those years I had never seen her sew anything for herself. How she pulled this off in the middle of the Christmas season made it even more amazing.
I don’t know why or how, but I do recall her smile, while posing with her new homemade coat, and that somehow it made me feel more confident and secure of myself. I was glad I skipped the bar hopping that night, so I wouldn’t miss another Waltons-like memory at Windrift Acres.
Read more childhood memories and other contributions from Boomer readers in our From the Reader department.
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