My Mother’s Dress

I know this to be my truth: there are moments that take place between a man and a woman that you should never speak of, and they could fill a book, and my mother spoke of them, and I wish she had not.

Yet I believed her.

Or rather, I believed the depth of her feelings, if not the wholesale accuracy of her stories. Righteous recreation of the past is a gift we all possess; it was among her specialties.

From the outside looking in, my parents’ marriage appeared calm enough. But the reality was bumpier. When divorce finally came after 31 years, I was an adult. It was a relief, or so I thought. I would be spared my mother’s incessant complaints about my father. He was a man I loved, a man who was easy to love, a man with many faults.

When he died, though he was married to another woman, my mother mourned him. She played the grieving spouse, the devastated widow, and how my father’s stoic second wife withstood it, I cannot say.

What I didn’t grasp was this: On her anniversary, she was openly sad – and angry – before he passed away, and after. If she was so miserable in her marriage, then why the display of angst every year?

Some of it was certainly her penchant for drama. Yet it was more – sorrow over what should have been and never was, and an ache – embedded in dates, in objects, in places. You cannot erase shared history. And some divorces attempt to do just that. Some people wish you to do just that, and if there are children, it’s virtually impossible.

* * *

Not long ago, one of the writers I enjoy on a regular basis dedicated words to his twentieth anniversary. He wrote eloquently of his relationship, and the years of marital journey. I wept. Not only because of the beauty of his words, but because his 20th occurred within days of what would have been my own.

And I thought of my mother’s dress.

From the time I was a girl, my mother wanted me to wear her wedding gown when I married. It wasn’t an unusual tradition at the time – passing a dress from one generation to the next. But it wasn’t my style, it wasn’t my size, and more than anything – fully aware of her unhappiness – the dress seemed tainted.

When I got engaged, she raised the subject again and I told her no. I wanted nothing to do with her cocktail of contradictions. I wanted to start fresh.

* * *

As I approach the anniversary of my mother’s passing, I pick through family photographs, and try again to discern what made her tick, what turned her beauty into rage, and why, so often, she treated me as an adversary. I remain stymied, contemplating rites of passage and emotional legacies. Some hold us up. Some knock us down. If we are fortunate, all will strengthen us.

I recognize the differences in my mother’s story and my own – in the respectful relationship I share with my sons, for one. As for her marriage – she was 19 when she met my father; her entire adulthood was wrapped up in him, in the expectations of domestic life, and mid-century mores. I was in my thirties when I met the man I married, and my perspective is informed by being older, and knowing what love was before marriage and since.

As for my wedding dress, I have no idea where it is – though when it comes to my rings, that’s a different matter. They are carefully wrapped and put away.

But my mother’s dress? It’s a mystery. She was meticulous in keeping files and records. She had her parents’ love letters exchanged during World War II, and toys and report cards going back to the forties. Yet when I emptied her house – no dress. Did she sell it? Did she give it away?

Twenty years after my own wedding, I wonder if there is a “rightful” disposal for decades of disappointment, for the words we cannot speak, and for the once cherished symbols of commitment that we are no longer entitled to display.

© D A Wolf



  1. says

    I remember trying on three different family dresses when I was engaged. One was my mother’s – a 70s style gown with long sleeves, an empire waist, and a nightgown-esque skirt. It fit, but was very dated and not my style at all. The other two were aunts’ and were more early 60s style – very Jackie Bouvier. They were stunning (one in particular which was custom made at Bergdorf’s…) but I couldn’t get them zipped. I’m thin, but the waists and ribcages back then were just tiny. I’d have liked to wear an heirloom gown, but it just didn’t work out.

    When I picked my gown (silk satin, no embellishments, bateau neckline, open back, ball skirt with inverted pleats) I made a point to choose something I thought would be timeless. It was what I wanted to wear, but, like your mother, I have a dream that one day a daughter or neice might want to wear it too.

    I don’t know why we are so prone to attach such incredible meaning to these dresses, but we do. I suppose that, even when the marriage falls apart, people like to remember their wedding day as a moment when everything was right. Perhaps by seeing the dress worn again they’ll feel some of that perfection come back to them.

  2. says

    I can’t pretend to understand. I guess I just don’t attach clothing items to important events. I borrowed a dress from a cousin when I married the first time; we had a very small ceremony of only immediate family, held in the chapel of the local VA hospital (my father was a patient at the time). I never wanted a big wedding, and I’ve never had one. Maybe if I had, I would feel differently.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      @Gale – Your dress sounds gorgeous. I will say, I wish I had my grandmother’s dress from the 1920s. Just as a dress… Simple, elegant, gorgeous.
      @Carol – I think it’s a tradition in some families, the wedding dress in particular. Why? I don’t know.

  3. says

    I don’t think my mom knew where her wedding dress was when I was married, so I found something that was in our price range and fit me (and my personality) perfectly.

    While reading this, my attention was diverted by your inference to your mother’s age. Marrying young can be tricky; I have seen those who marry young and end their marriages quickly, and those who marry older (but not old) and also end their marriages quickly. Age, in my opinion, isn’t nearly as important as expectations and maturity.

    I believe I was supremely lucky to have witnessed my parent’s imperfect yet practical marriage. I knew from the beginning that Ben and I both needed to be committed to selfless service and endless love. Sure we argue and we’ve had our share of trials, but our relationship, and love, has never wavered. We committed ourselves to eternity and we are working our hardest to ensure we get there.

    Thank you for writing this post so I could articulate these thoughts as they came into my head. : )

    • BigLittleWolf says

      I love the direction you’ve taken the conversation, Amber. Certainly, it was a musing on my mother’s dress (the whereabouts of hers and my own, unknown), and also, a musing on marriage and its symbols. Yes, my mother was very young when she and my father met, and they did what people did in the 50s – courted the appropriate time, and married, and began a life together – no doubt with unrealistic expectations. Ironically, I was much older when I met, dated, and married – and there are simply no guarantees.

      I think common values and character are far more important to a strong marriage than we realize. If those aren’t in sync, you’ve got problems. I think you and Ben, from everything you’ve written, are very much in sync.

  4. says

    The topic of weddings is fascinating to me. I know absolutely nothing about my mother’s to my father. Not where it was or when. Not who attended it or if there was a honeymoon. I literally know nothing of the wedding, little of the marriage, and too much about the divorce.

    I don’t know that I fathom all the many ways that focus on only the disappointment and never the joy has informed my marriage, or my life.

  5. says

    My mother didn’t really marry my father, so I had no dress to inherit. I love the dress I chose, though in hindsight it should have been better tailored – and while I certainly hope it’ll never be tainted, I also hope I won’t take offense if a daughter doesn’t want to wear it.
    I thought a lot about tainted wedding hand-me-downs this week, as I read about Prince William and Kate and Diana’s ring.

  6. says

    I like so many elements of this post BLW.
    In Hindu custom, we wear a traditonal red and white sari and it is usually kept by the bride and not passed on to her children. The culture dictates that a new bride wears something that hasn’t been worn before, a representation of new begininnings.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      That’s a great idea, Tracy. (I wonder if that’s what my mother did with her dress?) As for my dress… if I ever find it (buried in a box in the attic maybe?) – I think that’s the perfect answer.

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