It’s here! I can finally proclaim that spring has arrived in Hoboken, NJ. Damn, it took its time this year. There wasn’t even the teasing days of mid-March when you can finally shed your down jacket and Ugg boots. There wasn’t the gradual increase in temperature that allowed you the pledge and the promise that someday soon the ashy piles of icy snow would disappear from every street corner, making the cityscape look like an overflowing ashtray. It was just winter a very long time this year.
Don’t tell me there’s no climate change. I remember those days of slowly emerging spring with the first sounds of birds in the early morning and crocuses and other early blooming flowers starting to emerge from underneath the snow. I would walk to school observing the change of seasons, and relishing the fact that soon I could abandon my toggle buttoned car coat and switch into something lighter, or course layered over a sweater so that my mother wouldn’t feel cold, vicariously.
In fact, to me the whole ritual of spring, the rites of spring, involved changing my wardrobe. We had a cedar closet in the basement. Each year, my mother went through the tedious exercise of taking all of our woolen skirts, pants, and sweaters and layering them with foul smelling mothballs allegedly capable of keeping fabric-eating bugs from munching on our clothes. Come fall, a predictable number of garments were odorous and still moth-eaten.
I can’t remember the last time I “changed closets.” All of my clothes now are generic and multi-seasonal. Certainly, I have different weights of cotton sweaters and ponte pants, but none of them requires special protection from much of anything, least of all moths. Cedar closets are just one more relic of the past.
However, as I think about it, the thing I miss most about the clothes ritual of long ago springs is the spring coat. In our house, there were two such coats that were unforgettable. They were made for my sisters by my grandfather who was a master tailor. These two children’s coats epitomized, for me, everything that a spring coat was supposed to be.
These coats, these perfect little girls’ coats, were made of a soft wool crepe the color of dusty roses. They had fitted bodices and flared skirts. Best of all, they had wonderful attached capelets that covered the shoulders. My sisters, who were less than two years apart in age, were often dressed as twins by design. These coats were the best example of how adorable they looked with small straw bonnets, patent leather Mary Janes, and short white gloves to complete the look. I hated almost all of the hand-me-down clothes I got from my sisters, but I coveted those coats and wore them until the buttons spanned and there was just no hope of them fitting my chubbier frame.
Spring coats tended to come in Easter egg colors, pinks and blues mostly but, occasionally, a hounds’ tooth check would slip in to the color scheme. I think of spring coats as a vestige of the Jackie Kennedy era of fashion. Certainly, we can all picture Mrs. Kennedy in a lightweight Oleg Cassini coat covering an impeccable sheath dressed and topped by the ubiquitous pill box hat.
As for me, the last spring coat I remember buying was a pale blue coat with contrast stitching. It was adorable and just long enough to cover my mini dresses, but it was terribly impractical. The color attracted city dirt like an iron shavings magnetic puzzle. And, frankly, once we entered the Age of Aquarius, it was just silly to have a “That Girl” coat to cover diaphanous tie dye shirts and jeans. Still, there was something about that coat, even though the weather only cooperated with its weight perhaps twice a year, that clearly said to me, “It’s spring. Time for new leaves, new looks, a new lease on life.” Spring, however, never lasted long enough for me. Wherever I’ve lived, it’s always been a long winter, a short spring and a rapid plunge into summer.
As we got older, there were other spring traditions, most notably the lowering of the rag top convertible. Nothing said spring more than finding a friend with a convertible car, filling it full of giggling young women, and “bombing around” the neighborhood or surrounding suburbs with little to worry about except the next day’s pop quiz and a full tank of astoundingly inexpensive gas. While you drove, the radio blasted. In Philadelphia, where I grew up, there was no other station to play in a teenager’s car than WIBG (colloquially called WIBBAGE). With DJs like Joe Niagara, Jerry Blavat (“the Geator with the Heater&rdquo and, most notably, Hy Lit (“Hyski O’Rooney McVoutie O’Zoot,”) as our guiding stars, we knew all the lyrics from Lesley Gore to the Beach Boys and finally to the Beatles and screamed them out. I recently learned some odd trivia. The ultimate Philadelphia rock and roll station was originally licensed as a religious station and WIBG stood for “Why I Believe in G-d.” We just believed in rock and roll whether in our cars or on our boxy little transistor radios, another relic of lon gone days.
My last fond spring time memory came during my college days. The glory days of high school were gone and my friends and I were now commuter college students at the huge North Philadelphia university that turned out first and second generation college students by the truckload for four year tuitions that now would pay for one semester’s textbooks. On April 20, 1970, we celebrated the first Earth Day on Belmont Plateau, a large expanse of green lawn in the city’s Fairmount Park. In the interest of full disclosure, I was never a hippie. Not even close. My nickname in college was “Suzy Cream Cheese,” a riff on a Frank Zappa song referring to my nearly “jail bait” status and my squeaky clean image. I was more a mascot to my cooler, hipper friends, but spring infected us all along with the groovy music and the contact highs of the other kind of “grass” being smoked and toked all around us.
Several days after that last wonderful, essential day of Philadelphia spring, the world tilted on its axis. One of our friends, an idealistic young husband, was murdered in a random shooting on our inner city campus. This was a young man with all the promise in the world to do good, and he was killed for no good reason by four young men with nothing better to do than take his life. A week later, Kent State students pitted young men carrying guns against young people protesting for peace, and the world was never again the same. I think for me, that was the end of the promise of spring.
I’m glad I have fond memories of the earlier seasons, the innocent seasons, but the year 1970 tainted spring for me forever and always. It was just easier to go from winter to summer with no stops for tragedies along the way. Sadly, the final weeks of April have been for me joyless and luckless, weeks that I would happily remove from the calendar despite their promising weather.
Now, however, is a new time of life and perhaps it is time to once again celebrate the short season that slides between the snow and the sun. As author Anne Lamott said, “I am going to try to pay attention to the spring. I am going to look around at all the flowers, and look up at the hectic trees. I am going to close my eyes and listen.” Perhaps this year spring is the perfect metaphor for taking the lightweight, pastel-colored coat out of the closet and throwing it over the doldrums of a long, long winter.