THE DRESS *
Sheryl J. Bize Boutte
© Sheryl J. Bize Boutte 2012
By the mid 1960’s my parents had four school-aged daughters to support and a fifth change-of –life daughter on the way. Birthday and Christmas gifts often supplemented outgrown or worn out school clothes along with the begged for doll, bike or skates. Sometimes we got something special; something homemade, handed down or handed over that always brought a unique and precious feel to the celebration.
It was in this tradition on Christmas Day in 1966, while the color wheel changed the aluminum tree from blue to green to red and back again, my mother, referring to me by my “old soul” nickname said, “ This is especially for you, Grandma”, as she handed me a gold- ribboned box. Inside was a simple frock; a multi-colored, multi-flowered shirtwaist dress with a wide belt and full skirt. A gently worn hand-me-down from one of my mother’s wealthy acquaintances, the bottom of the hem hit just below my knobby knees and fit my still-growing 15-year-old body perfectly. It was a spring dress, of course, but I could not wait to wear it to school. My fingers were already turning the front doorknob, as my mother’s voice admonished, “Girl, don’t you know it is JANUARY? You are going to catch pneumonia in that thin little dress!” But I was halfway down the street and around the corner on my way to school before she could finish her warning. My inaugural wearing of this dress would also be the day a 17-year old boy would look out of his window from the 3rd house on the right and see me for the first time.
I wore The Dress much too often, but I had never had anything like it. It had the power to make my teenage self feel like a big grown up lady and became the favorite in my sparse wardrobe. It also made that boy wait for me to pass his house each day and then fall into step behind me. Stealthy and silent, he walked behind me for the five blocks to school for the rest of the school year. A bookworm and a loner, totally inside my own head as I made my way, I never once thought to look back.
Months later the forces emanating from The Dress would give that boy the courage to ring my doorbell.
“Hi, I’m Anthony from around the corner. Does the girl with the flowery dress live here?” he asked the sister who answered the door. Rolling her eyes, she said, “You must be looking for Sheryl. She is always wearing that old-timey dress.”
From that day forward, Anthony, the boy who had been my silent and unseen companion became my boyfriend, and soon after that, my fiancé.
On a beautiful spring day in 1971, we married in the living room of my family home with only our parents, my grandmother and a few friends in attendance. Still waif-like at age nineteen, my wedding dress was an elegant non-flowery peach chiffon and silk, the perfect compliment to my new husband’s ruffled peach shirt and coordinating bowtie. Our reception consisted of post-wedding photos taken in my parent’s park-like backyard, while our few guests dined on crust-less tuna and chicken salad sandwiches cut into little squares accompanied by Mumm’s extra dry champagne.
The years passed as we settled into married life, college graduations, career building, and child raising. Anthony and I were so destined to be together, that people came to refer to us as “Sheryl and Anthony” or “Anthony and Sheryl” as though they could not bring themselves to separate our names. Friends would say, “If you see one you see the other” and actually seemed proud to know a couple that had been high school sweethearts. Our love for each other remained strong and true but after a time, The Dress became so faded the flowers were barley visible, and so threadbare it was no longer wearable. Tearfully, I threw it away.
A thoughtful gift-giver, Anthony would often come home on my birthday, our anniversary or Christmas with a ribbon-tied box containing an exquisite dress, suit or even shoes, from a small boutique he claimed as his territory for his gifts to me. Once he presented me with a beautiful white suit and when I asked what the occasion was, he replied, “Because it's Tuesday.” He always chose the correct size and only stopped the practice when his boutique of choice went out of business. But of all the wonderful gifts he bought for me to wear, he never found anything as special as The Dress.
Then one rainy December day while flipping through a Christmas catalog I saw it; a multi-flowered shirtwaist dress with a white background, a full skirt and a wide belt. Could it be? When it arrived I was a bit disappointed to find that the fabric had an unworn stiffness, the flowers were not as vibrant, and the belt was a skinnier version of its beloved predecessor. But after so many years of The Dress drought, I decided this dress and I would make a pact to stay together, even though we both knew the relationship would never be ideal.
Anthony loved me in this dress even though I knew it for the poseur it was. And because he loved it, I wore it to work and out to dinner. I wore to the movies and to the supermarket. I wore it with a shawl in the spring and with boots and a jacket in the winter. I continued to wear it after our daughter was born in the 70's and was surprised, yet happy, that after I punched an extra hole in the belt for just a bit more room, it continued to fit. I wore it through my daughter’s early school years and into her entry to junior high. After she told me how much she liked it, I wore it even more. Still, through all of that, this dress could not convince me that it was the one.
Since I could never get enough of how happy it made my family, over time the dress and I had settled into an easy truce. I came to accept the fact that it could not help me to recapture the feelings I had when I wore the anointed original. And it seemed to know that although it was not The Dress, my family’s reactions would make it a most treasured piece.
After nineteen years of wear, I put the dress on one day and discovered I could no longer easily button it. Could I loosen the belt, perhaps? No, I had run out of room for more belt holes. Not wanting to give in to the truth I buttoned the dress and fastened the belt anyway, breaking a fingernail to the quick as I did so. The dress countered my orders for its cooperation with sharp and intense rib pain and taking away my ability to breathe. We stood at loggerheads in the mirror for a few seconds before I gave in and feverishly began to free myself from its grip. My disappearing waistline and the dress had finally conspired to betray me. With mixed emotions I knew we would have to part ways.
As loved ones became new angels and babies were born, Christmases came and went. They were always special and filled with the joy of being with family and friends. Christmas day would always find my famous Creole Gumbo on the stove along with homemade cinnamon rolls. There were many treasured gifts given during these times, but nothing ever matched the magic of The Dress.
Christmas Day, 2010, Anthony presented me with a large golden box wrapped with a golden bow. Weeks earlier we’d decided that because we felt so blessed, we would forgo gift buying that year. I was both surprised and somewhat annoyed that he had broken the pact and with pursed lips I launched into a protest, “But I thought we weren’t going to…” Smiling that smile he wore on my parent’s front porch those many years ago, Anthony waved off my objections and said, “Just open it!” I peeled off wrapping paper printed with the words, “Zell’s Vintage,” and opened the box.
Inside was a simple frock.
A multi-colored, multi-flowered shirtwaist dress with a wide belt and a full skirt.
The Dress was back for Christmas.
* This version of The Dress was originally published in the Harlequin anthology A Kiss Under the Mistletoe (Jennifer Basye Sander ) 2013 and was published in my short story collection, A Dollar Five-Stories From a Baby Boomer's Ongoing Journey, 2014. Most recently, it has been republished in The Little Book of Christmas Joy-True Holiday Stories to Nourish the Heart (Jennifer Basye Sander, Park Row Books, 2020), and was featured in the Women's National Book Association-San Francisco Chapter https://wnba-sfchapter.org/ "Holiday Storytelling Fest", December 2020, hosted by Kate Farrell.