Leaning on my father’s arm, a wave of nerves engulfs me. The impatient priest guards the end of the aisle. I think of my soon-to-be husband, but then I think of my dress. My hands slow their shaking and the music rises. Held together by the fastened buttons and the tight embrace of lace, I begin to walk.
They say that age is the enemy to beauty. The brass hinges of the old Samsonite and the well worn lines of my grandmother’s hands could count as proof to this point. Her palms and the sky blue suitcase open more tentatively and with less fluidity than the grace of their youth. But when she offers her open hand, I notice the gold band on her ring finger, somehow a truer gold after decades of wear. And when I was lost in her attic, the Samsonite seemed like a treasure chest.
“I bought it brand new,” she begins as I pry into her memory about the dress. Her admission of extravagance surprises me. I’ve frequented all of the thrift stores and resale shops in a tri-county area with this woman. I’ve never in my life seen her buy something new for herself. Even most of her Tupperware comes second-hand, saved from sour cream and spaghetti sauce containers. The thought of my grandmother, in her words, “picking the prettiest one from the bridal catalogue” is as strange and foreign to me as her reasons for excessive thriftiness.
I found her dress in that old suitcase, along with the skirt hoop, veil, and matching gloves. The dress was not-so-carefully folded in a tattered sheet, and the accessories were stuffed as haphazardly in a plastic bread bag. I had seen the dress in her bridal portrait where her young self, widely smiling, holds silk flowers indefinitely. My mother has a similar picture, clad in the same dress with the same side smile and coached posture.
I had secretly always wanted to try it on, feel the weight of its sturdy satin and yellowed lace, but until I was engaged, this secret was my own. When I finally told my mother that I intended to be the third wearer of the dress she asked, “Why?” I expected a gush of approval or at least a tearful hug, but my mother keeps secrets, too. She taught me through example that, for sensitive souls, the way to stay unhardened is to keep your heart guarded by its cage of ribs instead of on your sleeve or anywhere else a heart’s not supposed to be.
Despite her initial reaction, she helped me into our tea-length heirloom. Muffled by the layers of dress and shimmying movements, she began to tell me the dress’ history: “Grandmother cut this dress up only a few years after her wedding. She was going to use it for something.”
Her emphasis on something told me that this was like the collection of perfectly cut circles of fabric stacked in the closet: Grandmother had a final project in mind, or perhaps deep in that part her that doesn’t dare speak its intentions, but had stopped before anything more than a mess was made. “We had to put it back together so I could wear it,” my mother continues, “I left the hoop out because it was the 80’s and the 50’s weren’t as cool as they are now. After my wedding, we stuffed it into the suitcase. I guess if I had known you would wear it, we could have preserved it.” But I already knew that precious things were preserved better by the magic of forgetting.
Once we got the dress on, the waist cut off my already shallow breathing. Panic flooding my eyes, I looked to my mother for an answer. “Grandmother took it in for me about an inch and a half.” Then, seeming to forget for a moment the universally feminine fear of fit, she said, “Knowing Grandmother, she probably cut out the extra seams.” I stared at the ceiling to make more room for the tears forming. “Take it off,” I said, “Just help me take it off.”
Inside out on my bed, the dress seemed a skeleton of my hope. We measured the seam with bated breath, and with whispering humbleness, I thanked my grandmother. In her wisdom and my luck, she had not only left the seams untrimmed but was about my size in 1952.
Cut once more and together again to fit me, the dress became my armor against of my doubts of the future. The tiny wine stain reminded me of my grandmother’s hand trembling with the same doubts. The veil reminded me of my mother’s tentative look to her new husband from beneath the tulle. I move forward, held together by the patched grace of second-hand hope.