by Gianna Russo
There is no way she would miss it. Nothing would keep my mother away from the wedding of her first grandchild—not even her death nearly five years earlier.
Mom and her first grandchild, my older son Anthony, had had two years of “Grandma time” and love bonding before his little brother, my younger son, came along and knocked him off his throne. Anthony has been Mom’s little prince. (My genealogist grandfather had traced our family far back into English royalty–Old King Cole, to be exact–so he really was a little prince.) In his pre-verbal days during deep-eye-connection moments, Mom and Anthony seemed to share the mysteries of the world. Mom would hold Anthony up, peer into his eyes and ask, “What did the little fairies tell you?” He would begin to giggle. Then she’d repeat, “What did the little fairies say?” and he’d laugh harder. Then she’d ask again and again, until he laughed so hard he was on the verge of hiccups and she was laughing just as hard, as if they were both being tickled by those little fairies.
Mom was going to be at his wedding, and I knew just how. Shortly after Mom died, my two sisters and I had undertaken the heart-wrenching task of cleaning out her closet and drawers. After two nights of sorting what to donate/ what to take home/ what to give as a memento to treasured friends, we had finished her bedroom. But we still hadn’t touched the full-length closet in the Florida Room where Mom’s best dresses and hand-made treasures hung, forsaken.
Mom had been a gifted and meticulous seamstress. She’d come from a line of women who sewed, embroidered, and quilted and had been raised in the days when Home Economics classes were standard for young women. As an economizing housewife and a stifled artist, Mom sewed for all of us in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. It was common for women of her generation to do so and with my dad being the sole breadwinner when we were kids, it was also necessary. My sisters and I wore handmade, festive (and seasonally appropriate) outfits for Christmas, Easter and summer vacations. Our prom dresses were full-length, ruffled, trimmed, and laced. 1970 must have been a particularly inspired year because she made us all lavish velvet pantsuits for New Year’s Eve (celebrated at home). She even made me a smashing psychedelic hot-pants outfit when I went to hear Tom Jones in concert. Mom and a good family friend lovingly crafted my wedding dress.
But Mom actually had to sew her own clothes. She was a “big gal.” Unlike today, it was fairly unusual for American women in the 50s, 60s and 70s to wear larger than a size 12. From the day she married Dad, Mom fluctuated between a size 14 and a size 22 (except in the last years of her life when chemo shrunk her to a sexy size 10). It was nearly impossible to find clothes in her size, especially because she had an eye for fashion. She and Dad dressed up for Saturday evenings, even though their dates were usually only to a local restaurant. So Mom had to resort to making her own clothes. And what lovely creations she designed and executed! There were dozens over the decades. A few real stunners that I remember were the black stain skirt that paired with a fully hand-beaded blouse; the royal blue brocade sheath with a matching fur-trimmed jacket; and the black satin swing coat fully lined in cream on the inside with ostrich feather-trimmed sleeves. In her heaviest years, there were caftans suitable for a night of cocktails and cards with friends or my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration. During the years since her death, my sisters and I had sometimes explored the garments still there in the Florida Room. She had kept the midnight blue mother-of-the-bride ensemble she wore to one sister’s wedding, and there was the tangerine sherbet organza caftan she wore to mine. Mom was going to come to Anthony’s wedding. My sisters and I were each going to wear one of her dresses.
My sisters and I pushed back the louvered doors on the closet and began going through her special dresses, but I already knew the one I wanted. The epitome of 60s sophistication, the “swing” dress has a sheer overlay that floats in metallic silver stripes over an off-white lining. The “accordion” angel sleeves are oh-so-cool: permanently pleated, full-length sleeves that fall like angel’s wings when you hold your arms straight out at shoulder level. I grabbed it and my sisters were kind enough not to squabble. One sister chose a metallic gold sheath that looks almost like a tunic. My other sister chose a fantastically elegant short caftan-style dress. It also has a sheer overlay, but this one features brilliant turquoise tulips and swirls. The neckline is gathered, as are the full-length sleeves, and both are trimmed in hand-sewn aquamarine jewels. But Mom was quite a bit larger than we are. The gold tunic from Mom’s smaller days fits my sister fine, except that she would put some lace on the hem to give it a little more length. The silver would have to be tailored and the turquoise, restyled.
The tailor was awed by the silver dress. The craftsmanship and attention to detail surpass most of what you would find off the rack today. At first I thought it was one of Mom’s originals, but no. The tag on the neckline reads “Carol Craig.” She was a British designer of cocktail dresses popular in the 50s and 60s. According to an ad from 1958, what I call a swing dress she called her “trapeze silhouette,” a dress that is narrow at the top and flares out at the bottom, like the silver dress does. To fit me, the tailor needed to take it in and shorten the hem.
The day I picked up the dress, I was crazy with anticipation. As she brought it out, the tailor fairly swooned with pleasure. One of her seamstresses peeped out from the back to see me model it: I was transformed in perfect Mad Men chic. Now I just needed to clean it and set it carefully at the side of my closet for the night of the rehearsal dinner, when we would all be wearing Mom.
“Oh my God, that silver dress,” moaned my father when we told him about our plan. “That dress was a dream. When I saw her in that dress! We were in Atlanta. We were there for business and she had bought that dress for a fancy dinner we were attending. When she walked out in that dress—she just looked fantastic. She just looked gorgeous. She was really something. . . .” Hearing Dad gush over the dress, and Mom in it, made me wonder if he would be okay, if he’d be able to deal with the memories and the intense emotions of the night-before-the-wedding all rolled into one when he sees me in Mom’s dream dress.
My sister took the turquoise dress to my tailor. This was one of Mom’s creations. But it was going to need to be completely reworked. Besides being too big for my sister, it was designed to cover as much flesh as possible. The dress is another “trapeze silhouette,” but it’s shaped like a big sack, gathered all together up high at the neckline and falling shapelessly. It was going to need a serious restyle.
“Your mother—she had her own shop?” asked the tailor when my sister brings in the dress. No, she just sewed a lot, my sister told her. “Ah, what beautiful work,” murmured the tailor, bending over the evenly pinked and ironed seams. “So careful, such fine details. And this beading. She did this all by hand?” Yes, my sister said and reminded the tailor that she had already worked on one of Mom’s dresses—“The silver one!” My sister explained that we’d be wearing them together to have Mom at the wedding. “Oh you girls,” said the tailor, with damp eyes, “you really love your mother.”
My dress needed to be cleaned after hanging in the Florida Room closet for several decades. I suspected that the lining was originally white, not off-white—years of cigarette smoke in Mom’s house must have yellowed the fabric. You could see the discoloration along the neckline and edges of the sleeves. As I spread the dress on the check-in counter at Pioneer Cleaners—the oldest cleaners in Tampa with a good reputation for caring for difficult to clean items—the clerk gasped, “Oh , my goodness! This dress is incredible.” Her hands crawled all over it, fingering the fabric, outlining the shape. I told her what I wanted and she immediately called another more experienced clerk over.
Clerk Two stared at the dress with the same stunned reaction. “We need to get Bill out here,” she said, and scurried into the bowels of the building to find the manager.
Back at the counter all four of us examined the dress. “You just don’t see work like this anymore,” Bill admitted, “look at those buttons.” Tiny metal buttons along the back are carefully covered in the metallic fabric. Apparently you don’t find metal buttons anymore.
“Look at the hem on these sleeves,” said Clerk One, “It’s hand-sewn. Unbelievable!”
“And look, you don’t find this often anymore either,” I said, turning the hem inside out so we could all see the back seam. A small label secured there reads, “Int. Ladies Garment Workers Union/ ILGWU/ AFL-CIO.”
My sister called: would I like to see the restyled dress? Her eyes sparkled as she swept into my house carrying a garment bag and new shoes to match. She slipped into my bedroom to change and slowly, tentatively emerged in Mom’s Dress 2.0. “Do you like it?” she asked softly. The baggy gathered neckline had been cut away into a becoming scoop, trimmed once again in the aquamarine beads. The tailor had re-sewn them by hand. The caftan shape had been reconfigured to skim over her curves, accentuating her small waist. The full-length sleeves were now three-quarter length to show off her feminine wrists and hands. Tears sprang to my eyes as I hugged her. The dress, and my sister in it, were simply gorgeous. She was herself, it was 2014, but it was also the late 70’s, Saturday night, Mom as an aqua blue presence and a swirl of tulips. Oh yes, I loved it.
The wedding weekend arrived. The night before the rehearsal, my sisters and I could hardly manage our excitement. We had seen to every detail. All of us had carefully chosen the shoes, purses, earrings and bracelets that would catapult our dresses to fabulous. My silver dress was cleaned. The yellow spots, still evident, gave it that touch that I’ve decided just makes it more real. But the silver turquoise and gold dresses were finally ready for their re-do debut.
At the rehearsal dinner, my son and his bride-to-be were glowing. We were all enveloped in a bubble of bliss as everyone laughed, hugged, ate and encouraged the betrothed to kiss as often as possible by clinking our glasses with our spoons.
The dresses were a smash. My aunts couldn’t believe what we’d gone through in order to wear “her”: “How wonderful to have your mother here with us!” They shook their heads, stroked the material, gave us a hug.
“Don’t forget, reminded my sister, “the tailor wants a picture of all of us together.” Click! “Did you get it? Take another one!” Click! “Do you like it, Mom?”