Sunday, December 2, 2012

Requiem for a wedding dress

Yesterday, once the fog burned off, it was a glorious early winter day. Outside the sky was blue, the air was clear, and I spent the day sitting on the floor in my mother's storage unit. Yep, sat on the concrete floor in the windowless basement of her building, cleaning out the accumulated junk in her storage "cages."

My sister and I pulled out everything in the cages, sorted, and reorganized. We got rid of the marble cupid statue and the broken Christmas lights, a dozen throw pillows, and a variety of other things that once were treasures. We stuffed my car full and donated everything at the Salvation Army thrift store. I brought home my father's watch and wallet (yes, I cried). I also brought home a variety of old Bibles, missals, catechisms, and a crumbling file of my grandmother's recipes. There are some things that hold no value at the Salvation Army store, but are priceless to me.

Purging my mother's things, trying to decide what held value and what didn't, reminded me of a piece I wrote a while ago about my wedding dress.

Requiem for a Wedding Dress
Truth is I chose the wedding dress for her, for my mother. “Look at this one, honey, it’s so romantic,” she sighed.

It had been featured in one of those glossy bride magazines and she loved it at first sight. It was pure white embroidered organdy, with long, sheer sleeves and a train. We found it at Jelleff’s, a downtown department store, long since closed. Although I tried on many dresses over several trips to several stores, it was wasted time. I probably could have been satisfied with another dress, but I wanted my mother to be happy with my choice. So, in the spring of 1967, my mother and I chose her perfect dress.

Why we did not consider the heat and humidity of Washington summers, I have no idea. John and I were married at high noon on August 26th. We had monsoon rains for the entire week before the wedding and, just before noon on our wedding day, the sun finally came out with a vengeance. It was very hot, very humid, and I was wearing an organdy dress with long sleeves. We had the reception at my parents’ house. The house was not air-conditioned. I wilted but I was gloriously happy because I married the man I loved. My favorite picture from that day is a photograph of us dancing on my parents’ brick patio—I am beaming at him, dancing in his arms while trying to hold the train of the dress.

On the Christmas following our wedding, as a gift, my mother had the dress preserved in a special box that was supposed to slow the aging process. For over 30 years the hermetically sealed wedding dress moved with my husband and me, from apartment to apartment, then from house to house. During one of the moves, the plastic protective seal was punctured and the dress slowly began to turn from white to yellow. Like the portrait of Dorian Gray, the dress in the attic was deteriorating. The marriage may have appeared healthy to the outside world, but it too was deteriorating.

Thirty years after it was worn for one joyful day, the dress became the symbol of my broken life. Over those years, the young man I loved slowly crumbled and slipped away from me. Anger and depression ate away his spirit and he left the marriage, hoping that a drastic change would heal him. The marriage ended in a tangle of lawyers, legal documents, and at least one broken heart.

The divorce agreement required me to sell the house. Thirty years worth of accumulated possessions had to be pared down to fit in my small townhouse. Thirty years of serving dishes, brownie uniforms, GI Joe equipment, and useless Christmas gifts. My friend Nancy, the poster child for simplicity, said, “If you haven’t used it in the past year, get rid of it.”

But what about the wedding dress? I put it in the giveaway pile, then had second thoughts and took it out again. Could I just unceremoniously dispose of my wedding dress? I considered some sort of Druid burning ritual to release its evil spirits but feared that I could incinerate my house in the process.

I tried to get my daughter Jennifer to agree to wear the dress one day. “Face it, Mom, I’m three inches shorter than you and three sizes smaller. No offense, but it really isn’t the dress I would choose.” Besides, she might want a white dress, or even off-white, crème, beige, bisque, but not grimy yellow.

I had gone through several rounds of sorting through everything. It was the week before the move and I was taking one last trip to the Salvation Army donation site. I grabbed the box containing the wedding dress and squeezed it in the back of my truck. When I arrived at the Salvation Army site, I handed the box to the attendant and never looked back. I had no remorse, no tears; it was time to move on. I felt good, clean, determined, like an exterminator had just removed the cooties from my life.

But my mother was crushed when I told her what I had done. “How could you thrown away that beautiful dress?” she said, “I loved that dress.”

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