The Heirloom Dress
My mother was no-nonsense, even when it came to planning weddings. “For God’s sake, don’t book it on religious holidays—Christmas, Easter, and football season. You’ll have plenty of no-shows around New Year’s, spring break, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day. Mother’s Day is sacred, too. Father’s Day? Oh, men get over it.”
“Forget August,” Mom added. Her excuse was like a bad weather forecast. “Too much humid hair frizz and perspiration.” (In the South, “sweat” is verboten. Yes, we glisten on steamy afternoons.)
She waved away any bride’s dithering and checked off the key players within three days of the engagement announcement: the preacher, the church, the florist, the photographer, the caterer, and the reception location. Her lifelong sewing club demanded immediate notification because they were drowning in showers. All their daughters were coming of age.
Mom didn’t sweat some details. Four days before one wedding, she and dad rolled home from a two-week trip to the Cotswolds. Heavens, she thought, I need a mother-of the-groom dress. Mom yanked a blue mother-of-the-debutante dress out of her closet and sped off to the drycleaners that did alterations.
My mother saw it as an easy chop job. She inclined toward simple silhouettes. However, her request horrified the drycleaner attendant. “Just whack it off at a respectable length for an afternoon wedding.” Mom had marked the spot with a straight pin. “I’ll pay extra for a one-day hem job.” Then Mom dashed out the door, leaving the poor woman agog—her mouth frozen in a giant “O.”
A few years later, Mom hesitated when I asked to wear her wedding dress. It was a fanciful notion since my childhood. How I adored its 1940s sweetheart neckline and satin-covered buttons. Great-great Uncle Bill had bought the Brussels lace (then a mantilla) during World War I for my grandmother.
Nannie would have us imagine that he clutched it to his chest as he crawled from trench to trench, flushing out Germans and crying, “Not a shred of lace for Kaiser Bill!” Once safely delivered to Nannie’s arms, the mantilla lay lovingly stored in a cedar chest for 31 years until she used it to embellish Mom’s wedding dress—her masterpiece after years of sewing college formals with sweeps of satin and bundles of netting.
As a child, I would steal into my parents’ large storage closet and climb, like a monkey, to the top shelf and reach for their musty wedding album. (Mom was a packrat, so she stacked albums and baby books on top of it.) I loved the photograph in which Mom and Dad turned ever so slightly toward each other, hands clasped, eye to eye, gazing gently, with sweet promises ahead.
Forty years later, Mom’s face was rounder and rosier (all that cooking for a tribe). Dad’s thick mop looked plucked. A mortgage and their children’s 30 years of combined college tuition had consumed their lives. To my consternation, Mom had no clue where she had stashed her wedding dress. She didn’t want to help me search, fearing the worst, as if it had rotted into a silverfish-infested heap.
My sister Mary, who had taken over as wedding planner, knew exactly where to look. The attic. Mom had saved everything. The debris could facilitate an archaeological dig of 22nd-century specialists in Cold War studies. Apparently, Mom carelessly documented our lives in piles.
Mary and I excavated about 25 elementary school class pictures, a few with cracked frames; 12 sets of shedding cheerleader pompons; a clump of shriveled corsages; Malibu Barbie with three wigs and an orange sports car; twist-and-turn Barbie with bendable legs (one of the subcutaneous wires had popped from a joint); a bald Midge; and Skipper, who had mysteriously undergone a shag haircut worthy of Mrs. Brady Bunch. There was a mother lode of Milton Bradley Games and a mysteriously fried (blackened) Easy Bake Oven.
Mary crawled over four broken chairs, boxes of letters, and creased poster projects to uncover the dress wadded up in a plastic bag near some fiberglass insulation. The lace had browned a bit, though the coronet and veil had fared better.
Mary excitedly tried to squeeze me in the dress. I stepped into the garment, but the waistline would not slip past my thighs. Ever hopeful, Mary attempted to haul it over my shoulders.
In her day, my mother’s waist must have been as small as Scarlett O’Hara’s—17 inches, the most svelte in three counties, according to Margaret Mitchell. Or Mom could have been Gibson Girl pin-up.
My mother? That tiny? Get out! Speaking of getting out, there I was stuck, my head in the bodice, one overhead arm in a sleeve and the other trapped in the elbow of the second sleeve. I sucked in my breath, and Mary somehow inched off the satin-and-lace vise.
Mom and Mary did not shillyshally. They made an appointment with the queenly dowager who restored vintage wedding gowns and deb dresses in her rambling mansion on Birmingham’s Southside. I delighted in the rumor that it was once a brothel. My mother must have pulled off the charm job of her life because that dear woman agreed to cram the dress restoration into her mad pre-wedding and pre-deb garment preps for the upcoming season.
For the first fitting, I resurrected my ballroom manners. The Dowager of Repair Wear was petite, her accent cultivated. However, when she saw my mother’s crumpled wedding dress, her voice let off sparks, like matches hitting cold brick. For once in her life, my buoyant mother wanted to crawl out of a room.
The plain-Jane assistant never said a word. Her mousey hair pulled back in such a tight Mee-Maw bun that her wrinkles almost disappeared. (Think of Joan Rivers’ face, with her leftover skin stretched and knotted back under an über hair-sprayed ‘do.) Frocked in black, the assistant clutched a measuring tape and pressed a bunch of straight pins between her lips. A tomato-shaped pincushion strapped tightly on her right wrist.
Once more, I squirmed into the dress for inspection. I held my arms above my head, and the shoulders of the dress trapped my elbows. The bodice again smothered my head. “Dear God!” the Dowager of Repair Wear cracked as she spun me around to poke and prod. “What I wouldn’t give for the perfect figure. In my next life, I’m returning as a 6-foot flaming redhead with big boobs.” My guffaws almost ripped the dress. Surely, the assistant was spitting pins. However, when I popped out my head, there she stood, her lips pressed even more thinly.
Thankfully, the formidable dressmaker pronounced the dress “doable,” as my grandmother had allowed enough fabric to let out for the next bride.
Not so doable was my bustline. Typically, a right-handed person has a smaller left hand and foot. The right foot may be a half-size larger. Nature had done an extra number on me. Right-handed moi somehow had a right boob with extra oomph. The assistant shook her head after measuring. The Dowager of Repair Wear dispatched me to The Lingerie Shop in Mountain Brook, Alabama, the mecca for dainty undergarments. It has serviced three generations from blue hairs to brides—for chest rearranging.
You think today’s Spanx is cruel after 18 hours? Try shoving yourself into a long-line contraption similar to that hawked by Jane Russell in the 1960s and 1970s. It was as deathly as a steel-like whalebone corset.
Aside: If you are underage and don’t watch “Turner Classic Movies,” Miss Russell was the 1940s/1950s broad who topped her 24-inch waist and 36-inch hips with a 38D chest. She had ramrod posture. Otherwise, she would have toppled forward. Bob Hope once introduced her as “the two and only Jane Russell”—in the age before feminist ire and bra burning. Of course, the voluptuous Miss Russell could have lit a bonfire with her gargantuan bra. (It bested Marilyn Monroe’s 36D.)
Washed-up actresses usually ended up in TV hell: Jane Russell plied Playtex bras to “full-figured gals,” and Jane Powell, who had real teeth, oozed about Polident.
One of the gentlewomen of The Lingerie Shop tugged and pulled to even out my bustline. I tried not to take her professional touch personally. “Emma, dear,” she called to one of her cohorts. “Have you ever seen such a difficult fit?”
Emma peered at me, with her thick cat-eye glasses magnifying her bulbous farsighted eyes. I felt like a smashed bug under an entomologist’s slide. “Mercy,” she replied and started to work me over. Two “mature” customers crowded in to help twist and shift.
The corset of choice generally smoothed my silhouette, but my chest was still a tad “off.” Worn out, I bought the corset against a storm of protests. “Wait, wait,” they cried. “We can special order!”
Kleenex makes for good stuffing, I thought.
The Dowager of Repair Wear concocted a secret recipe for transforming the satin from stained to lustrous cream. It was a miracle. She could have made major bucks selling it to Procter & Gamble. The dreamy lace looked fresh, as if stored for decades in Nannie’s cedar chest.
We kept the dress a secret from Nannie, who had bought the satin from the downtown Atlanta Rich’s department store. She fastidiously sewed the wedding dress and fearlessly adorned it with the lace. She attended the final fitting and wept when I stepped into the room. A few straight pins fell out of the assistant’s mouth, and she brushed away a tear.
Men don’t get it. When my father spotted the invoice on my mother’s desk, he groused, “Hell, Bunny, why didn’t you buy a new wedding dress, a trousseau, and another box of sterling silver?”
Mom ignored him. For the wonder and delight on my grandmother’s face, the restoration was worth every pretty penny. Too bad the marriage did not last. But that heirloom dress is forever.
Auburn-Alabama Football courtesy of Matthew Tosh
Take a ride through my freewheeling blog: Random Storyteller. Here I take the leap into no-niche freedom—stories about characters, creatives, places, memory gems, etc. Perhaps a lot of etc., with a few quirks and twists of humor.