Being a Princess is over-rated.
The Flocked Dress
My Grandma, who raised my baby sister and me, had made matching dresses for us from sheer white organza flocked with sprinkles of yellow flowers flanked by green leaves. Grandma, an accomplished seamstress, made all our clothing. She also stitched beautiful white under-slips, the tops smocked in a cable stitch with white embroidery thread, the skirts gathered, the perfect background to float the flowered dresses.
It was early spring, the air redolent with lilacs. My sister was nearly two years old and I had either just turned five, or would soon have a birthday. The memory of the dress, the dress that would make me a princess, carries me back to that day. I could hardly wait for Grandma to finish combing my unruly hair and jab in yellow ribbon barrettes. I tugged on new white anklets with a lace edge at the top and shiny white patent-leather Mary Jane shoes. I tried not to fidget, but she grabbed my shoulders and planted me to the floor. She lifted the dress over my upraised arms, settled the bodice into place, buttoned up the back and tied the wide sash into a beautiful bow. She spun me around to make sure everything was straight and told me to go get in the car. I’m certain Grandma had sewed these wonderful new dresses for Easter Sunday Mass. But on this day we wore them to Other Grandma’s funeral.
Other Grandma used to be plain Grandma, the only Grandma I had known. But when my baby sister and I became motherless, this new Grandma, one I did not remember, arrived on the train, and moved in to help my Dad raise us girls. She now became Grandma and the one we drove to visit every week or two became Other Grandma.
I don’t remember feeling any particular sadness over Other Grandma’s death. We lived on a farm. Birth and death were part of everyday life. I remember watching the birth of baby calves, slick and wet, pink new piglets rootling at their mother’s teats, fuzzy chicks tap-taping through the shells. Nearly every Sunday Grandma grabbed the hatchet, snared a fat hen and marched her to the chopping block out back. Then she dipped the hen in boiling water and I helped pluck the feathers. And nobody held me back from watching hog butchering. It was life on the farm.
On the short drive to the cemetery, I began feeling sick. I rolled down the window and leaned my head out. I could feel my hair coming loose from the barrettes. Scared as I was of a scolding, I was more afraid of throwing up.
Other Grandma’s funeral service was held outdoors at graveside or I might never have made it as long as I did. I remember chairs lined in rows, the casket, open, on a stand. We sat up front, with all my aunts and uncles and cousins. I kept my chin raised into the slight breeze. Just enough wind moved to rustle my dress. I had a strong sense of what was proper, even that young. I did not dare throw up. If I got sick, I knew I would be knocked into next Sunday and that without anybody raising a hand to me. My Grandma had that kind of power. My mouth began to water in that warning way. I swallowed hard, held my breath, lifted my face into the wind, as far from the neck of my dress as possible.
In my young eyes, Other Grandma was horribly old when she died. I recall a solemnity to the day, though not any particular feeling of loss. At the end of all the talking and reading, everybody stood up. We marched past the casket to say our good-bys. One of the men dressed in a black suit closed the lid. They lifted the box and lowered it into the grave.
Dad lit a cigarette, offered one to Uncle George and lit his too. I knew from experience we would not leave until they finished smoking. I stood with my lips clamped shut, tears leaking from my eyes, shifting from foot to foot. My Grandma hissed at me to “be still.” Finally my Dad shook hands with Uncle George and turned to leave. I ran over to our gray Pontiac coupe, held onto the door handle, leaned over and spewed and spewed until my stomach emptied.
My beautiful dress, now soiled, lay folded in the trunk. I rode home, alone in the back seat, wearing only my slip and my shame. Easter Sunday I wore my winter Church dress, utilitarian green plaid cotton with a huge white round collar. I never wore my beautiful princess dress again. I was allergic to the flocking.
HDN: Looking out my back door.
April 1, 2010