Grandma’s Dress

Last night I wore it, probably for the last time. It’s fragile, and it doesn’t take too close a look to see that me wearing it has already caused damage.

I vaguely remember that family lore said that Grandma never wore the dress. Our best estimates are that it dates from the early ’20s. I’ve always called it Grandma’s flapper dress, and it has been perfect for the two (so far) 1920’s themed events I’ve attended wearing it.

I recently had to mend the hem, which was coming out for about 12 inches around the bottom, and it made me think Grandma must have hemmed it for me long ago. The stitches were tiny, precisely even, and imperceptible on the outside of the dress. Every stitch in that handmade dress is like that. My stitches looked gigantic and crude by comparison.

I don’t know why Grandma wouldn’t have had the chance to wear the dress. She was married in 1922, and gave birth to my Mom, her first of three children, in 1924. It may have been that after she was married, as a proper New England woman, she wasn’t ready to wear a dress that suggested festivity, even frivolity.

When I put the dress on, back in high school and again this year, I though of Grandma. The dress seems very unlike the Grandma I knew, who was a frugal, particular widow and a retired school teacher. In this photo, I look a bit like her; uncomfortable, trying to look dignified despite the tear in the sleeve.

I wasn’t kind enough to Grandma during her life. When she came to visit us for a few weeks, my Mom made me do a “fashion show,” which we did for Dad every year when we bought new fall clothes for school. Dad would just sink deeper into his chair with each new outfit that emerged from my bedroom, roll his eyes a little, and say “how much?”

Grandma relentlessly fussed with my new clothes, insisting that she be allowed to pin up and shorten cuffs and hems. All I wanted was someone to say, “that looks lovely on you!” But what I felt I got was incessant criticism. Nothing was good enough, nothing was satisfactory. My Mom had the same tendency–constant criticism, no praise, no encouragement. I don’t know where some mothers get the tendency to tear down their daughters, but it’s a common phenomenon. When Angelic Daughter was born, I swore I’d never do it to her, and I think I’m keeping that promise.

But both Grandma and Mom had their reasons to be critical, or even sour, sometimes. My grandfather died young, when my Mom was in her 20s, I think, of MS. My mother’s younger brother died young of leukemia, leaving a widow and 4 kids, when my Mom was in her 30’s living with Dad and with 3 kids of their own.

Grandma put up with my whiny boredom and half-hearted helpfulness each summer when we went to visit. She laughed occasionally, a merry sort of “hoo-hoo-hee-hee,” but she never cut loose with a guffaw or a true belly laugh. I think that also came from her New England sense of propriety.

Years after Grandma died, my Mom told me that neither my Grandma or her husband wanted the life they got. According to Mom, her father just wanted to be a shopkeeper, running the family hardware store, and Grandma wanted to live in the countryside in Maine, having grown up on a farm. But my great-grandfather, the shop owner, insisted my grandfather (whom I never met) enter a profession (dentistry) and built the couple a house in the city (Portland, Maine) that they used as both their home and my grandfather’s dental office.

So Grandma’s dress is imbued with stories of disappointment, endurance, thwarted dreams, and tragedies.

And now here I am, staring down a widowhood that could be as long as Grandma’s. So Grandma, I hope you came out dancing with me last night, and I hope you visited the mock speakeasy in the city with me a month or so ago when I also wore your dress, something I’m sure you never did during Prohibition. I love you, and I’m sorry I was such an ungrateful little punk to you.

I promise to take good care of your dress. I hope to donate it to a museum or academic fashion design program where they’ll pledge to restore it and keep it, in your memory.

You didn’t like showing off, so I’ll let your dress rest, and I hope I can find a place to donate it that will restore it, and treat it with the love and respect you deserved.

Until then, I remain,

your regretful, overdressed, meeting-up, trying to “get out there” more,


4 thoughts on “Grandma’s Dress

  1. I still squirm a bit to remember my own “know it all” youthful attitude that I had towards my mom. I grew out of it as I grew old enough to recognize that for all of her inadequacies (well, there were many) she nevertheless did her best as a charming, creative, neurotic woman who was widowed with three children. Now I see this as a gift- that our deceased elders give us time to reflect on the women, the times and the cultures they grew up in which helped to create us living in our times with our own struggles and triumphs. I love that you framed this understanding through the story of the dress and thanks for the photo. I do hope you are able find somewhere to have the dress restored to its former loveliness.


    1. Thanks, Judi. Grammie didn’t go for a lot of obvious sentimentality – she was very practical, because she had to be. She didn’t share much about her life or feelings, either. She was a busy bee who rarely sat down – always doing something. My Mom was the same way and I see that trait in myself, too – just spent 45 minutes putting a new bed skirt, sheet, and pillowcases on my bed, changing Angelic Daughter’s bed, and putting the last load of laundry in the dryer when I should have been sitting with Angelic Daughter, who patiently waited until I finished bustling around, precious girl (actually woman – she just turned 28!!) Always good to hear from you and hope you’re doing well!


  2. Remember in that movie, The Princess Bride, how every time Westley said, “As you wish” to Buttercup, he was actually saying “I love you” to her. When your Grandma “fussed with my new clothes, insisting that she be allowed to pin up and shorten cuffs and hems,” I’m sure that was just her way of saying “I love you” to you. You may regret not being nicer to her, but I’m sure that she was quite happy, just being around her grandchild.


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