Dresses from Mom

Woman in red dress on pierMy mother was a “Dresser,” as anyone who knew her will tell you. Her wardrobe was legendary, and during the past year, my sister and I have found great joy in giving some of her collection to friends who will wear and appreciate these pieces, from the Hong Kong-made raw silk suits to the sparkling, beaded tops, from the kimono collection to the luscious knits. Though she enjoyed her clothes, and wore absolutely everything she owned, what she might have loved even more was sharing clothes with my sister and me—sometimes from her own closet, but often from her shopping expeditions. Always generous, she seemed to have had my sister and me in mind throughout her entire adult life, and since she was a shopper par excellence, we made out like royalty.

Before we were born, she had a Great Adventure in China. Mao and his Communist regime would soon be taking the helm of that great country, but she made it to Shanghai in its heyday, living there for several months with a French family with whom she remained close the rest of their days. Exploring the magnificent silks in a back ally one day, she thought, “What if I have a daughter?” She bought a bolt of white satin, patterned with an intaglio of delicate florals and swirls. Wrapping it in black tissue paper to prevent it from yellowing, she tucked it away. Soon thereafter, she joined my father in Tokyo, where he was serving in the Army as part of General MacArthur’s Occupation Forces. Once again, she found the part of the city filled with tiny fabric shops. “What if I have another daughter?” she wondered. She bought a second bolt of fabric, this one of famous pre-war silk, white-on-white satin patterned with an elegant Japanese design. Some decades later, when we were planning a wedding, she brought out the two bolts of fabric. I loved one, my sister loved the other, and our wedding dresses were sewn of these magical materials.

For her final birthday, we planned a unique performance. Mom designed a dress for me to wear, and had her wonderful seamstress make it. A dazzling green organza confection, it made me feel as if I was wearing jade sliced as thin as clouds—and then she gave me her jade jewels to go with it. I knew this would be the last dress she’d ever give me. I wore it as passionately as a five-year-old wearing her first princess dress to a performance of The Nutcracker. It hangs in my closet now, and I hope I’ll have the spirit and the occasion to wear it again someday.

It’s a year later, now, and I have to find The Dress to wear for a big anniversary my husband and I will be celebrating with family and friends. I knew that sometime in recent months I’d seen a dress Mom would have loved in some catalog or other, but in all the recent organizing and reorganizing and home repairs, I couldn’t quite imagine where it would be. Then, today, when I wasn’t looking, I found it. Had Mom seen this particular number—vivid and feminine, sculpted but also flowing—she’d have bought it for me in a heartbeat. Though our taste didn’t always agree, in this case, we’d have been—literally—on the same page. I sat at my computer and went to the catalog’s website immediately to order it. “That item is no longer available,” said the onscreen message.

Usually that wouldn’t matter much, but this time it felt wrong. Just . . . wrong. So, though it was irrational, I called the company. I asked if they had any way of tracking down a discontinued item, or if they had an outlet. “But Mam,” the rep said, “that item is in stock.” Oh! Really? I placed the order, still wondering how this apparently magical thing had happened.

I got my answer a moment later. “What is the code on the back of your catalog?” the woman asked. It was then I noticed for the first time that this catalog had not been sent to me. In the address box was someone else’s name: my mother’s. I don’t recall taking that catalog from her house, nor do I recall her giving it to me. I receive this company’s mailings myself, so there would have been no logical reason I’d have her copy. Yet, clearly, this wasn’t about the “head”, this was all about the “heart.” I like to think this is one more gift from Mom’s heart to mine.

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