Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Blue Flowered Dress

Odd, the things that stay in your mind. I know people who can tell you every phone number they had, or their street address from when they were five years old and carefully memorized it, just in case they got lost in the crowds somewhere. My own memories tend to be concrete, specific, and peculiar.
And very often, though I don't think of myself as a material girl, the memories are of objects, possessions, treasures.

This week I've been thinking a lot about the blue flowered dress. It came to just below my knees. It was made of a white silken fabric, probably nylon, but then I only knew "fancy" and "plain" and this dress was fancy for sure. Over the white background hundreds of small blue flowers were scattered, the blue of a clear summer sky when you know all is right with the world, when you are sitting under a big tree and the grass stretches on forever, when nothing has hurt you and nothing will hurt you. That sort of blue.

It had a belt, made of the same fabric, cunningly threaded through little loops.

It had a rounded collar, and the collar was edged in a whisper of lace, as though a small cloud had drifted over that summer sky.

And it had buttons, six of them, down the front. The buttons were shiny black and in the center of each was a rhinestone--I was sure they were diamonds--that caught the light and made rainbows everywhere in the room in which I tried this dress on, over my plain white slip, as my mother and my aunt looked and commented and told me how beautiful it was.

Oh, I knew it was beautiful. In it I was beautiful. In it I could take on the world.

My aunt Irene bought the dress for me, smiling at my unguarded rapture.

I was 4 years old, almost five. The buttons sort of matched my black patent leather fancy-only-don't-dare-wear-them-in-the-dust shoes. I loved that dress, that moment of understanding that beauty was attainable--that I could, yes, have that bit of fancy.

That year my brother and my mother and I lived in a tiny apartment next to my aunt and uncle and my four rowdy boy cousins. My uncle owned the apartment; it was a refuge for us as we waited and waited for word from my far away Air Force father that we could join him across the Pacific.

I was sick most of the year and my aunt, busy though she was with her boys, always made time to sit with me, to bring me books, and twice to bring me kittens. She was an extra mother, as beautiful as my own mother, though with a different beauty--black hair, ice blue eyes, a laughing air of elegance. We were heart-bonded from the start.

And she had that gift of the perfect object, the material blessing that transcended the mere material world. I think I remember everything she gave me, and she gave me a lot in those material moments, from the blue flowered dress and the kittens to most of the books of my childhood, the first grown up jewels, the sultry perfume. And even the propane based cookstove for my rustic cabin as I struggled to raise my own brood, decades after I wore the pretty dress and thought the world was mine for the taking.

She was beautiful and funny. Proud of her grown sons, proud of her grandsons, always a support to my mother. In her youth she had truly been a beauty queen, a pageant winner. She survived brain cancer--I returned from Europe and was so impressed with her very short hair. No one had told me about her illness, and she laughed when I complimented her on her fashion daring and said how glad she was that I was back, since everyone else was all woeful and overly sympathetic about the loss of her long black hair. She had the proper attitude whenever I broke up with a lover--none of them were good enough for me. "I always thought he was selfish" she'd rejoin, as my mother lamented the nice guy I'd traveled so long with.

Oh, she was lively. I have a photograph in which she and my grandfather are singing, looking silly and half drunk and fully alive and delighted. I've kept it near me for years because it makes me smile; it says to me--oh, something about "have fun, sing off key, do it, love it!"

Very early in the morning Thursday I heard a knock at the front door and wondered who was in distress, what was happening. I went to look, ready to deal with whatever crisis or request was there.

But there was only the night air. I made a note of the time, and sent some love and gratitude to my aunt, whom I knew was close to her next adventure.

Today my youngest cousin confirmed my time; yes, she had passed.

Her death leaves me as the oldest woman of my family. I am summoning up my blue flowered dress with its power of the summer to help keep my grateful heart from breaking.

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