DRESS REHEARSAL : TAKE ONE

Mom & Me Kiss
A week after my father died in 1969, my mom bought her burial dress, a long-sleeved bevy of beige chiffon accordion pleats with contoured organdy hemlines and cuffs resembling parched petunias.

The collar was fashioned into a multilayered sash, cresting the shoulders and flowing down the back to veil the neck and screen the zipper. A peach taffeta sheath shimmered underneath.

“Everyone knows a wife dies seven years after her husband,” Mom declared.

“Is that the law?” I asked.

“It is,” she assured.

“And, if you don’t die, what then? Do they give you a ticket?”

Mom flashed me the look of admonishment that every parent keeps ready to actuate in times of insolence.

“It’s a glorious dress,” she said.

“Yes,” I conceded. “A veritable work of art.”

My mom was never as thin as she thought she was, or planned to be. After 56 years, six children and a passion for chocolate, she arrived at widowhood 20 pounds heavier than ideal for her 5-foot frame.

Still, she was striking. Her ivory-streaked ebony curls were invariably fastened atop her head like crown jewels. Her posture was precise. Her apparel was meticulous, with a penchant for pastels, fabric flowers and contemporary styles.

The exception being, that dress. Where other designs died on the rack and emerged in time as retro vogue, her burial dress remained permanently detained in 1969.

I don’t know why Mom never saw fit to keep the dress in a garment bag. Perhaps she just preferred the convenience of instant viewing. Regardless, she carted it, unprotected, through five dress sizes, three homes and 37 more years.

“She makes me put it on, you know,” my sister, Sue, disclosed one day.

“The burial dress?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Whatever for?” I wondered.

“So she can imagine how she’ll look in her coffin.”

I guffawed.

“She’s serious,” Sue cautioned. “Every visit, she makes me put that dress on and lie down. Eyes closed. Hands folded. Perfectly still. She makes Kate do it, too. Every holiday. But Kate lies with arms stretched wide, like wings.”

(Kate’s our kid sister. Both she and Sue are 5 feet 7ish.)

“Wings?”

“Yeah. When the sleeve pleats open, they look like angel wings.”

“Why hasn’t she asked me to try it on?” I almost pouted.

“Because you resemble a younger, thinner her,” Sue teased. “She characterizes you as her little dolly.” I scoffed at her remark, but took it as true.

“So? How do you look in it?”

“Puh-lease,” she chortled.

Maybe I spurned the dress because Mom acted ageless by never appearing seriously sick. Sure, her gallbladder dealt her a fit before she gave up doughnuts, and she wrestled seasonal colds. But her heart was strong. Her wit was quick. She was ever valiant and resourceful.

Nevertheless, I phoned her every day after my dad died. And gradually, what began as a daughter’s concern for her mother’s well-being turned us into cronies.

As we aged, I called more frequently. Mine was the first voice she heard most mornings and the last each night. In between, we’d chat over coffee, prepare meals via speakers, trade views of the news and laugh at English comedies before retiring. An entire day’s dialogue was condensed into less time than it takes most people to commute.

It was a fracture to her left leg that finally forced Mom to forfeit her independence for the security of Sue’s care in Texas. Plans for our move to there were delayed so she could visit Florida once again.

“I’ll be there on my birthday whether you like it or not,” she vowed.

“Only 21 more days until you arrive,” I grinned into the phone. “Are you feeling festive yet?”

“Actually,” she said, then paused. “The strangest thing is happening right now. I’m watching my brain leave my head.”

“What do you mean, Mom?”

“I’m not sure,” she said quietly. “It’s so odd. I don’t know where it’s going, or why. It just is.”

“Like you’re floating outside yourself, looking in?”

“No. I’m here. It’s my brain I’m seeing go.”

“Mom,” I said. “You know I love you very much, don’t you?”

“I . . . know . . . you . . . do,” she echoed. It was more of a blessing than a goodbye, those final four words of her life.

Three weeks later, on the morning of what should have been Mom’s 93rd birthday, a package arrived from Texas.

While we’d been engaged in a dance of denial that she’d ever die, Mom added “cremation in my birthday suit” as a codicil to her will. Afterward, she painstakingly wrapped and lovingly labeled one last gift to me.

The dust of 37 years has darkened the chiffon, but each pleat remains crisp.

The organdy binding still echoes the contours of petunias. The taffeta slip still shimmers like skin. The sleeves, now raised, still mirror angel wings.

I encased the dress in glass and placed it as a watchtower over my desk.

It’s treasured there as a testament to my mom, who always was what this dress truly is.

Glorious.

#   #   #

This essay © by Marguerite Quantaine first appeared in St. Petersburg Times, on 11/5/2006.

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Is there something special you do in memory of your mother or father? Please select REPLY and share it here. I’m all eyes and heart.

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18 thoughts on “DRESS REHEARSAL : TAKE ONE

    1. Tam Musgrove

      I love this; it so reminds me that it’s all the “little” conversations I remember the most and best about my Dad. I just lost him in 2010 and it feels like yesterday sometimes. I suspect that it often feels that way with your first hero.

      Reply
  1. Pixiey

    Today is my mom’s birthday. I lost her 7 years ago when I was 36. Each birthday or any other day that was special to her, also when I am just missing her, I watch her favorite movies and smile. I used to talk to her daily, especially late at night we would talk for hours. I miss that the most, I am so glad my son got to know her he calls her the sweetest and an angel in his descriptions. I know she would have loved that. Thank you for this. I miss her but know she is at peace and she visits me in my dreams.

    Reply
    1. margueritequantaine Post author

      My sincere condolences dear. I empathize. Mine passed 7 years ago, too, and two days later my beloved Pekingese, Tinkerbell, died. (I like to think Tinker went to keep her company.) It’s good your son got to know her and that you can share your memories of her with him. Her spirit is in him, I’m sure, just as she’ll always be within you. Hugs.

      Reply
    1. margueritequantaine

      There were six children in my family, Breeghn, and only after she passed did I learn that each of us had very different relationships with my mom. Mine was one of fond memories, much laughter, letters, and daily conversation. I’m so glad to know you have a close bond with your mom and am having an especially good thought for you both.

      Reply
  2. Rogena Mitchell-Jones

    I thought I was going to begin this reply so differently, but I must begin with how much I love to read your blogs, even if they have me in tears as this one does now. What a blessed story, and thank you so much for sharing this with all of us. I love my mom immensely, but we do not have a close bond. I try, but I am sure I can and should try harder. I do have a very close bond with my daughter, however. For that, I am ever so thankful.

    What I was going to say in this reply before I actually read the blog…. please continue to post your blogs on FB more than once. Sometimes I don’t have time to stop right then to read it, but I know you will post again as my reminder… and I love to read the stories you have to tell. Bless you!

    ~Rogena

    Reply
    1. margueritequantaine

      I think it’s wonderful, Rogena, that you have a close relationship with your daughter. May you maintain it all life long.

      I think the secret to ours was, I loved my mom without expectations. In a large family, that need for a child to feel like a favorite runs rampart. But it skipped me because I was happy just to love here. She made me laugh every day. And the memories of her make me laugh, still.

      Thank you (my-heart-to-yours) for liking my writing — and for taking my side on the blog notices. I feel everyone is overwhelmed with things to do and short of time for doing it. That’s why I’m always so genuinely grateful to those who take a moment to include my words in their thoughts. It is a privilege. And I’m ever humbled by it.

      Reply
  3. Donna Wells

    Thank you MQ, beautiful blog. My mother has been gone 40 years and my father for 30. My memories are vague at best. What I do remember most is I was loved and loved them, very much.

    Reply
  4. margueritequantaine Post author

    You know what, Donna? That’s really all that matters. I happened to have been the last person my grandmother spoke to (my mom’s mom) and then the last one my mom spoke to, so the memories are a tad ingrained. But being loved and knowing it? You are blessed indeed. Because no matter what leaves the mind, knowing that never leaves the heart.

    Reply

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