Authors: Jessie Bishop Powell
“Your grandmother is four inches taller than you and a whole lot . . .” He stopped himself.
“A whole lot what?” I demanded, though I knew what he was going to say.
“You know,” he said, gesturing around his own chest. “Bigger.”
By “bigger,” he meant chestier. I barely graduated into a B cup, and it’s hard for me to find clothes that don’t erase my hard-won breast bump. In the normal course of things, I didn’t think about it much. But formal occasions never failed to remind me that I lived in a C+ world. It didn’t help that every other woman in my family except Mama suffers from boobs in excess, or that my little sister actually had to have hers reduced to save herself from back problems. I did not appreciate Lance’s mentioning it right then. “I’ll be wearing a padded bra, and Mama will take that
,” I snarled at him.
I had already seen myself in Mama’s full-length mirrors in the sewing room upstairs, so I knew how I looked. Lance’s description wasn’t at all inaccurate. But from the way Mama had described the alterations she would make, I knew the dress would be perfect. I had hoped to paint a similar picture for Lance, but he wasn’t even giving me a chance. Even the parlor’s natural light wasn’t adjusting my fiancé’s opinion.
“But the sleeves,” he went on. “And the . . . whatever you call the bottom.”
“The train?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “The part out in front.”
“The hemline,” I told him. “The hemline can be taken in, too.” I crossed my arms. “Is your
problem with my grandmother’s wedding dress that it doesn’t fit?”
We eyed each other in our formal wear. Mama was adamant that I would wear my grandmother’s gown. Lance had still lacked for a tux when I gave in, so Art supplied a loaner to keep the groom from having to visit a suit shop with the newly arrived Sophia. Mama, being a matcher and balancer, had wanted at least photographs of Lance’s selection to compare with my dress. We had stopped by Art’s to take pictures, and he instead handed the suit bag over. Of course, Mama had made Lance put it on.
Where my dress was huge on me, Art’s suit fit Lance almost perfectly. It was unexpected, since Art was a little shorter than Lance, but they had the same leg length, and the two inches Art needed to make room for what he termed his bulging biceps and shoulders also left room for Lance’s added height. I still found the fit suspicious. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find that Art had taken Lance’s spare clothes out of his locker at the sanctuary and bought the suit entirely to fit its current wearer. Mama would need to take in a little in the jacket to make the arrangement work, but the length was perfect.
Thus, it wasn’t too surprising that Lance had asked, “Not fitting seems like a pretty big problem, doesn’t it?”
Unsurprising, but annoying. I had wished for my mother-in-law. If she had been present, Lance wouldn’t have been able to argue with me. He would have been too busy keeping her bad behavior under control. But Sophia pled a migraine. Personally, I thought she had a hangover. She had flown in the night before, and after a quick dinner with my folks, had been picked up by some girlfriend from Columbus.
“Maybe if it were too
” I had twisted to follow his movements. He circled me in a half arc, stopping so he wouldn’t have to dodge the dress’s modest train. “But too big is really easy to fix.” Why couldn’t Sophia be here to irritate and distract her son? She liked to flit. She had friends from Lance and Alex’s days at Ironweed and she was using her two weeks’ stay to get together with several of them. She had arrived home early that morning and gone straight to bed. I was simply relieved she had stayed the night with her buddy rather than either of them driving home after whatever they drank the night before.
“Is that the
thing you don’t like?”
don’t know!” Lance suddenly flopped down on the sofa. “I want you to have a dress of your
Don’t you think we can afford that?” He made us sound like paupers. Our salaries at the sanctuary didn’t leave much room for extras, but we were frugal, and the answer was that if I had wanted to buy a new gown, we could have covered it. But it was both an expense I didn’t desire, and an argument with my mother I could safely avoid.
All in all, Mama was more fretful about the upcoming ceremony and about this dress in particular than either Lance or I. She had just wanted to get started pinning and measuring. In contrast, once I accepted the gown, I lost any interest the subject had held and wished Mama could use a dressmaker’s doll as a stand-in for the living bride.
Growing up with a seamstress parent,
knew that if Mama felt she could perfect the dress in two weeks, then it would really only take one. She had made prom dresses for my sister Marguerite and me while running a successful sewing business out of the house I grew up in. Altering my grandmother’s gown while enjoying semiretirement would be quite simple. Still, her peace of mind mattered to me, and I liked the gown.
I sat beside Lance, forcing him to jerk his legs out of my way. “Have you ever priced out a wedding dress?” I asked. Two could play the pauper game. “I’d rather have a nice reception. And I like this. It suits me.”
“Don’t you look like a pair of dolls,” Mama had rounded the corner into the parlor. I supposed so, I in my then ill-fitting dress, Lance in Art’s white tuxedo.
Lance and I sank deeper into the couch, holding hands. Without looking at Mama, Lance said, “It seems like the dress is so important in the wedding. I don’t want you to have somebody’s castoff.”
“Just because Nana never got to use it, that does
make this dress a castoff,” I snapped. When Bill Cox skipped town the same day of his wedding to my grandmother Franny, the town gossips had a field day speculating whether the two had ever wedded at all. They had not. Mama remained prudently silent. We contemplated these words for a little while before I added, “I think the dress looks fine. The dry cleaner can get out the yellow, and Mama can take in the seams. It’s not like you aren’t wearing somebody else’s clothes, too.” Probably a falsehood, but he hadn’t worked that out yet. “The suit and dress will go together,” I went on, “and that’s all we needed to figure out today anyway. I’m not so far out of date, and you’re not so very trendy that we clash, and neither one of us is horribly ‘eggshell’ with our white.” Mama hated eggshell.
Lance had grunted and loosened his tie, which was black.
“You look adorable,” Mama had said. “Now hop up and let’s get you changed. I’ll run it uptown to the cleaner’s after lunch.” Mama never went downtown. She always went uptown. Downtown meant Columbus, which could have been in Europe to hear her talk about how far away it was. Uptown mean Iron-weed.
Lance grunted again.
I told him, “When people have lived together as long as we have, different things matter. Maybe when I was thirty and fresh out of grad school, I’d have wanted everything to be new. But honestly, I don’t think of our wedding like some testament to how pretty I look in lace.”
look pretty in lace,” Lance offered, snuggling in closer on the couch, rather than getting up as Mama had suggested. He leaned around to put his arm around me and try for a kiss.
I let him peck me but squirmed loose before he could do anything to make Mama blush. “Not now.” I flicked my mussed brown hair out of my face and held several strands up for scrutiny. “Ugh. More gray. Anyway, lots of brides wear family gowns.”
“I like your gray.”
“Watch it, or I’ll start talking about your bald spot.”
He reached up to rub the top of his head like he was checking for bruises, then hauled himself to standing and offered me a hand up. I was fighting my gray one dye bottle at a time, and Lance had long since given up the war against the empty patch in the middle of his head.
“Bleach it, then nobody will know the difference when you color,” my mother advised. Mama’s hair used to be brown, like mine, before the gray set in. Now she dyed it a shade of blonde so bright that I called it “way-off-canary-yellow” and wore it in a stylish pixie. On her, the horrible color and adorable cut emphasized her femininity. It would have made me look like a prepubescent boy.
I tucked the offending strands behind my ears and let Lance help me up. “Anyway,” I said, “I’m more interested in the mortgage, the groceries, and trying to pay for this honeymoon. Spending a lot of money for a dress I’ll only wear one time doesn’t make sense to me.”
“Don’t let her kid you,” Mama said. “You and I both know she wouldn’t have invested money in a dress twelve years ago, either.” She pulled out her cell to photograph us standing awkwardly in front of the sofa.
“Oh, Mama, put that thing
” I said. “We look absurd right now.”
But Mama snapped two more shots before popping it back into her pocket, where it promptly started ringing.
“Oh!” Mama said, “Oh, oh! Smartphones!” as if that explained something. Even though she had been dexterously tapping the screen a moment before to take pictures of us, she suddenly seemed all thumbs when forced to confront the same machine in another capacity. She juggled it from hand to hand, nearly dropping it while she tried to poke the right spot to answer.
“Mama,” I said, “You have to tap and drag. It’s . . .”
Before I could finish speaking, Mama’s finger finally connected with the screen in the right pattern. “There,” she said, then, “Hello!” Moments after that, the chipper edge faded and she said, “Oh.” She drifted back toward the kitchen, saying, “Yes, John, you
need to dispute the charges with a check card. It isn’t the same as a credit card at all. It’s a formality, dear.”
“Honey, get me out of this thing,” I had said to Lance. “I think it will work, and I feel like a ragdoll in it. I turned around to present my back so he could undo the row of tiny buttons around the neck.
As he started tugging, the front door opened, and a voice called, “Ding DONG!”
“We’re in the back parlor, Nana,” I said. Then, to Lance, I added, “Wait a minute. I want to see what she thinks.”
Lance smiled, and I turned to face the hall again. I turned a full circle as Nana entered the room, tugging on the train to keep it from twining around my legs as I spun. While I was turning, Lance sucked in his breath.
“What?” I asked him.
He tried to explain. “It still hangs and sags”—he gestured to my arms and chest respectively—“but . . .” He trailed off, still circling his left hand like he expected it to conjure words out of thin air for him. Then he said suddenly, “I like it. I like it very much.”
“But you said . . .,” I protested.
Nana cut me off. “No, dear. I agree with Lance. It looks nice. I’m glad someone will finally get some use out of it after all these years.” And I realized he had spoken entirely for my grandmother’s benefit. Whether Lance liked the dress or not, whether
liked it or not, Nana clearly loved it. All the memories and heartache, and she still loved her dress. She clasped her hands at her chest and quickly released them. Then she added, “Of course, in my day, the groom never saw the dress until the day of the wedding. I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t made Bill wait. Maybe this would be a second wearing instead of a first.” At eighty, Nana still towered over me. Although she was stooped now and walked a little slowly, her green eyes shone with a joyful light, even in a wistful moment like this one, as she looked at me in her dress.
“What was it like for you,” I asked, “raising Mama alone?” It wasn’t a topic I had ever broached, but I suddenly couldn’t imagine why. My grandmother had been a single parent in an age when girls were routinely sent away for nine convenient months in the event of an unexpected pregnancy.
Franny Cox had laughed as she paced around me, gathering fistfuls of fabric to pull the hem off the ground and putting them in my increasingly overburdened arms. Nana was not troubled about stepping over the train, and the chiffon didn’t slip out of her grip, even while she was handing more of it to me. I resorted to tucking it under my elbows. When Nana was finished, I stood a little awkwardly, half clutching, half pinning the hem clear of the floor, while she stood behind me pinching the chest tight.
“It wasn’t that long ago, really,” Nana said at last, answering a question I had thought she might ignore. “Most people thought we’d eloped before Bill went off to Korea, and I let them lie to themselves. And I wasn’t alone, really.” Now she had moved on to the sleeves, tugging so they hung at my wrists, not down over the palms. No mean feat, especially considering that she did it one-handed without dislodging any of the tucked-up skirt or letting go of the back of the dress. She went on, “Mother was horrified, but she stood up in church for me. And that’s not something you saw every day. She was a very formidable woman, my mother. Very formidable. Your sister is a lot like her.” Last of all, Nana pulled the throat tight for a moment, then nodded once before letting it all go again.
“Yes,” she said, talking about the dress now. “Lenore and I can sew that.”
can sew that,” Mama said, returning from her phone call, stuffing the device once more into her pocket. “Mother, you know your eyes aren’t up to needlework.”
“My eyes are fine,” Nana snapped, pushing her glasses up her nose.
“You crochet,” Mama said. “But we’re talking about tiny stitches. When was the last time you even embroidered?”
“Stop it! Both of you!” I threw up my arms and dropped the cascades of fabric Nana had tucked up for me. “Or I swear I’ll get a tailor.” The two of them cackled, like they thought I was making some kind of a joke. “Lance, get me out of this thing,” I said, meaning it this time. I retreated upstairs to the sewing room as delicately as one can while trailing a wedding dress at least three sizes too large, and Mama, not Lance, followed.
Now, two weeks later, that dress sat waiting for me on the dress form that actually had been a decent stand-in while Mama removed the skirt so she could raise the hemline and shorten the waist.