The White Prom Dress My Mother Sewed

Mary Cassatt's art

I didn’t want a homemade dress for my senior prom. I wanted
to go with my friends to the mall in a pack, and try on dresses for one
another. I didn’t even want my mother involved. God!

Sullen, I sunbathed in the driveway with baby oil and mercurochrome while my mother made countless trips to the fabric store alone. I rolled my eyes when she showed me
the yards of white eyelet and ribbon trim. I snapped at her when she held up
the pattern for the dress, asking me if I liked it.

I watched the prom dress take shape out of the corner of my eye. I was busy working on my tan and sleeping late and driving around with my friends. When I breezed
through the house for a Tab, I’d hear the ever-present hum of the sewing
machine. Occasionally, I’d amble back to the guest room where my mother sat
hunched over the Singer, her brow glistening with sweat and a dozen straight
pins sticking out between her pursed lips.

And she’d smile at me, delighted at my visit as she ignored my dour countenance.

That prom dress was the last thing she sewed for me, and even at that unappreciative age at which I remained for
at least two decades longer than most, I thought it was the most beautiful
dress I had ever seen. I stared at myself in the mirror the way most women do
when they try on their wedding dress. I was transformed by its spaghetti
straps, fitted eyelet bodice and swirls and swirls of intricate tucks of satin
and lace and eyelet that made up the full skirt.

My mother sewed lots of things for me over the years, none of them I particularly wanted.
I remember all of them, the matching blue flippa dresses my sister and I wore as children,  the lime green print swirled with orange
cotton for the spring dance, the deep plum shimmery formal , the pale peach
dotted Swiss  May Day dress.

Of all these dresses my mother made
for me, this white one, the prom gown, is the only one I’ve kept. I know I will
never ever wear it again. I have no daughters to pass it down to. But I keep it
hanging in the closet, wrapped in dry cleaner bags.

And sometimes in the thick of cleaning out moth-eaten sweaters, I unwrap the dress
and lay it out on the bed. I don’t picture myself in the dress, thirty-three
years younger and suntanned.

I only see my mother at the sewing machine, her hair damp with the afternoon heat and her
fingers sore with pin pricks, running yard after yard of fabric under the
whirring needle.

I hold up the hem, and examine the exquisite
hand-sewn satin tucks that go on and on in an endless swirl around the hem.

I remember that summer, and the one
before, and the one after. All the summers I should have been an adult, that I
was old enough to be gracious and mature and a little bit selfless.

I hold the dress up to my chest and
look in the mirror. My hair is grey, and my face is lined. I am fifty three
years old, well past the age of fitted white dresses.

I don’t need this dress or any of the others
to know my mother loves me.

But still, I ease it back into the
plastic cover, and arrange the skirt so it will not wrinkle.

I am not ready to let go.

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