“There was a robbery at the plant today, “ my father told us at dinner one very cold winter day.
He rarely talked about his job at Ford Motor Company on Pulaski Road so this was unusual.
“Someone stole everyone’s coat — except mine,” he laughed. “Everyone else had to go out in the cold without a coat except me.”
This was the 1950s and I was just a little girl, but I was old enough to feel shame. Even thieves didn’t want my father’s coat, which was a hand-me-down from my brother.
After my brother graduated from St. Bruno grammar school, he enrolled at St. Mel High School and bought a winter jacket with the school’s name on the back. It was what everyone did in 1953. But after one year, he decided to transfer to Gordon Tech to play football. There was no way he could wear the St. Mel jacket to Gordon Tech.
My mother pulled off the St. Mel name from the back, but you could still see where the letters used to be. It was such a good winter coat that my father started wearing it with St. Mel clearly visible on the back. It was a short, bomber-style jacket and seemed to be on the wrong person, but I guess it was better than the faded blue jacket with the fake fur collar I remember my father wearing year after year.
So I knew why a thief wouldn’t want the coat but I didn’t understand why it didn’t upset my father.
As an adult, I read Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat,” about a man who is socially isolated because he is judged by his appearance and especially his threadbare coat but then he gets a beautiful new coat that changes his life and he becomes popular. I’m sure my father never read this story but he intuitively knew the significance of it.
It didn’t matter to my father what kind of coat he wore; what mattered was what kind of coat his son wore. My father didn’t care that a thief had rejected his coat because what was important was that my brother was not judged by his apparel.
Late in life, as a parent myself, I figured out that my father didn’t wear the coat with shame. He wore it with love.
My father, John Golec, was a kind and gentle man who never finished high school and was doomed to low-paying factory jobs for his entire life. But he was always happy because he spent his life doing what he wanted to do: being a husband, a father, a brother, a friend, a neighbor, a co-worker. He has passed on but those of us who knew him were blessed by his presence and I am so very proud of my dad and how he chose to live his life.
He had little formal education but he had a lot to teach me.
He showed me that I don’t need to be rich or famous or accomplish anything grand. What matters is that I live each day as best as I can, and I thank my father for teaching me this timeless lesson.
Gloria Golec is an emeritus professor of English at College of DuPage.
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