'Old Soul': The Year of Our Frugal Enlightenment
The sport coat was a pleasant discovery, an old-fashioned, beautifully tailored, moss-green herringbone tweed.
I found it at the Episcopal thrift shop a few days before Christmas, having ducked in with a colleague during lunch break to get warm and snoop about for for amusing last-minute secondhand stocking stuffers.
Last year, I found a trio of palm tree candle holders that utterly delighted my food-mad wife, the best $3 I ever spent for a Christmas gift. This year, alas, most of the "good stuff" was well picked over, already gone. But then my eye drifted to the end of the sagging men's coat rack in back where a tweed sports jacket caught my attention.
I moseyed over and pulled it out for a look, slipping it on and admiring its thick tweed nap, conservative cut and well-made silk lining. A new jacket like this, assuming you could find one anymore, would cost $700. Amazingly, save for sleeves that were perhaps an inch or so too short, the jacket fit perfectly. I couldn't believe the sale tag: "$5."
Three nights later, I wore it to church to read the first of the Lessons and Carols. I made sure my sleeves were tucked up an inch so I didn't look like Gomer does Christmas.
"Nice jacket," a stylish older woman said to me, fingering my lapel like a lady who knew her threads. "My father had a beautiful jacket exactly like that. You don't see beautiful tweed like that these days, I'm afraid."
"I believe it was his," I joked before I quite realized what I was saying, quickly adding that it came from a local second-hand shop - undoubtedly gathered up by a grieving widow or sent to the charity racks by some old sport's well-meaning children.
Her surprise turned to a coy half-smile. "So I guess you don't mind wearing the sports jacket of a dearly departed fellow?" she said.
"Not at all. I hope it pleases him, wherever he's gone."
"That means you're an old soul," she declared.
"Or maybe just cheap," I came back.
An Old Soul?
On the way home, I asked my wife if she thought I was an old soul. I know sometimes I act like an old fart. But that's another category entirely.
"Sure," she said without even a moment's hesitation. "Look at the things you love. Old clothes. Old books. Your favorite chair is the old wing chair upstairs. Remember that old watch you wanted to buy in Portobello Road? Even your car is old."
She was right, of course. I drive a vintage Buick Roadmaster station wagon that once belonged to a lovely gentleman from New Jersey who kept his car in immaculate condition. Somehow this car reminds me of my own late father, who drove a nearly identical car for the last decade of his life.
After my dad passed on, before my mother sent his clothes off to a second useful life at Goodwill, I went through his closet hoping to find a few things of his I might keep, having inherited his affection for colorful wool sport coats, but all his favorite jackets were too snug a fit, as was his favorite gray sweater with the elbow patches.
However, I kept his favorite wool cap, several neckties, his well-worn St. Andrews golf cap, a pocket silk, his old blue Seiko watch, his old Wilson golf clubs, maybe two dozen of his favorite books, and a stack of playing cards I found in his office desk drawer.
I was pleased and surprised to find, tucked into the rear of that same drawer, a handsome breast-pocket wallet with my grandfather's initials, "W.W.D," embossed in the cowhide grain. It looked unused, almost new. I learned from my mother that it was a gift from my father to his before he shipped off with the Eighth Army Air Corps from New York harbor in early 1943 to join the war in Europe.
That was the only trip my rural grandfather ever made to New York City - to see his second-oldest off to war. My father found the wallet when he went through his dad's effects after he died in 1967. Perhaps he was an old soul, too. And now, for the moment at least, the wallet is in my safekeeping.
Though much of what we love and are comforted by remains unseen, someone once told me, a material object's place is strictly in this visible world - its only real value is whatever value we ascribe to it.
On Christmas morning, I was surprised to open a box and find an antique Revolutionary War soldier desk lamp inside, a stolid bluecoat standing beside a drum with a socketed light bulb rising from his noble tri-cornered hat, a figure from James Boyd and my own book-mad childhood.
The lamp came from a local man who donated it along with his collections of toy soldiers to the Festival of Trees. By movement of some thoughtful unseen hand - possibly either God or a festival manager named Teresa - word somehow reached my wife that the aforementioned lamp was probably not suitable for the young lad the toys were destined for, and would she care to make a bid upon it?
She did, and the brave bluecoat soldier now presides at parade rest over my writing desk, casting a warm light over morning writing sessions and my evening reads. My, how I love this old lamp.
Later that morning, I found my visiting college-girl daughter wearing one of my oldest Scottish wool sweaters around the house.
"Sorry," she said. "Do you mind? It's so warm, and it smells like you."
I told her I didn't mind at all, was in fact delighted for her to take it with her back to Vermont. She smiled and said, "Maybe someday."
Warming a Chilly Winter
These days, meanwhile, we hear a constant buzz about the New Austerity that is, or soon will be, forced upon us - the result of our wildly overspending politicians, greedy corporate bankers and outrageously compensated CEOs, a housing boom gone bust, and our own profligate spending habits cultivated over the 30-odd years of living beyond our means.
A friend who keeps abreast of such things informs me that personal frugality is the new American style - that conspicuous consumption, for the moment a least, is "so totally yesterday," that whatever is old will be made new again by plain and simple necessity - or at least given extra years of service before the "new and improved" model can be purchased with cash instead of credit.
I hope she's right, though I'm not sure the people who relentlessly market mobile phones or Lexus cars have received the memo yet. Every time I see that annoying Lexus "Holiday Sales Event" spot in which the dapper young Wall Street warrior is lured to the front of his McMansion where his foxy young wife seductively tugs the big red bow off his $50,000 Christmas present, I think about the estimated 3 million people who will sleep in their cars tonight because they have no home to go to.
I remember when a car sale was just a car sale, not a holiday event. But then again, I'm a crusty old soul, or maybe just a plain old fart. Whatever I am, personal frugality strikes me as a hopeful thought upon which to begin a new year, as All-American as any of our national virtues - the notion that we'll all consume less, preserve more, value what we have rather than what we crave, save for tomorrow, and invest wisely in things that last.
I hope my daughter someday takes that wool sweater from my closet - and anything else she would like to have and keep, with or without the vanishing scent of her old man.
In the meantime, I'm pleased to read by the light of an antique bluecoat soldier and wear my wonderful $5 tweed sport coat around town, thankful to those who owned and preserved them before me, both warming me in this chilly winter of our frugal enlightenment.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist for The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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