My mom, who would have turned 80 today, was a prolific writer. I have stacks of her notebooks filled with poems, essays and short stories in her small, neat handwriting. I thought I had read them all – but this morning, something new caught my eye. To my surprise and delight, it is a memory of her 16th birthday on March 11, 1952.
My mother and father were planning a dance in my honor at a downtown hotel in Bristol, Virginia. I had searched for months for just the right dress for the occasion, but nothing filled my grown-up sophisticated requirement. Finally, my mother and I selected a sky blue watermarked taffeta fabric and a Vogue pattern which had gussets flaring the skirt.
I thought this dress was too “young-looking” but Mama and the seamstress assured me it would be perfect. The fitting a few days later did little to change my opinion, but the dance was less than a week away.
Two days before the party, I went into town to pick up my satin ballerina shoes that were being dyed to match my dress. There, in the window of Mademoiselle’s Style Shop, was my dream dress! It was made of tissue silk. The full skirt floated down to ankle length from a scoop-necked bodice. Black and silver vertical stripes gave the look of a Scarlett O’Hara waistline.
I rushed inside and tried on the dress. This was exactly what I wanted to look like on the night of my 16th birthday dance. I would sweep my long ponytail up into a French twist and enter the adult world in sophisticated style — then I looked at the price tag: $120. That may not seem surprising now for a party dress, but in 1952 it was startling.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t wait to get back home and announce that at last I had found the perfect dress, and if my parents would buy it for me I would never ask for another thing as long as I lived.
After hearing the price, my mother (who held the purse strings in the family) said, “No. You are too young to wear black, and it is ridiculous to pay that much for a dress.”
My father, who could still be swayed by female tears, said, “Well… your mother and I will talk about it.” But from the look on Mama’s face, I knew the discussion was over and I had lost.
The day of the dance arrived and Mama made a small compromise by letting me wear my hair up in a French twist. (Not much compared to a tissue silk, scoop-necked black dress, I thought, but at least I would have a hint of sophistication.) After spending an hour in Lucille’s Hair Salon, Mama and I went to meet Daddy for lunch at the hotel to check on last-minute preparations.
As I pulled out my chair, a long box tied with a pink ribbon slid out from under the table. Printed on the lid was Mademoiselle’s Style Shop. I lifted the top and there, nestled in pink tissue, was my dress. As I held it up and beamed with delight, my mother glowered at my father. She said, “She will never get your money’s worth out of that dress.”
Daddy’s reply, I realize now, was my greatest present. He said, “She has already given me my money’s worth.”
I kept that dress for 45 years. Two of my grandchildren played dress-up in it until it finally rotted away, as old silk will. But we all got our money’s worth out of that dress.