By the end of my wedding reception, my dress – my mother’s 1940s satin wedding dress - was splattered with champagne and tears.
All night, I’d been the recipient of hugs and kisses by loving friends and family, all apparently holding tipping champagne glasses.
My mother had died four months earlier, so my dress — her dress — absorbed our tears, too.
And then, incredibly, 29 years pass and the phone is ringing.
Welcome to the family, my husband tells the young man. Send me a picture of your ring, I say to my daughter.
And I pulled out the dress I wore in honor of my mother.
This fall, 70 years after my mother laughed and dreamed in her wedding dress — and 30 years after I did the same — my daughter, Christina, will wear a part of that dress as she dances on her own wedding day.
A few yards of antique satin can absorb a lot of memories.
Joy and heartbreak
I didn’t realize how sick my mother was when I called her that November to say I was engaged.
On the phone, she sounded weak but pleased.
Maybe it was relief.
After a stormy adolescence and her disapproval over how exuberantly I used the unfettered freedom of my 20s, my mother and I had reached a mature rapprochement. At 30, the last of her six children to be married was settling down with a man everyone in our big family adored.
Babbling blithely on the phone about a wedding date five months in the future, I obstinately denied what had become obvious: she wouldn’t be needing a mother-of-the-bride dress.
Mothers are always there in the background, holding the bullhorn as they cheer for your life. Children, even grown ones, can’t imagine a motherless world.
But, eventually, we must.
Two months earlier, she’d been too weak from the chemo to fly to my youngest brother’s wedding.
When we called her from the reception, she was crying.
Only now, happily anticipating my daughter’s marriage, do I understand the despair she must have felt at missing her youngest child’s wedding.
She must have known she would miss mine, too. Her body’s secret hourglass had begun measuring her life in days.
The cancer that was beaten back 11 years earlier would not be thwarted a second time.
She died three weeks later, on Thanksgiving Day.
Life can be joyful then break your heart.
A perfect fit
My two sisters and I were going through her things when we found the dress.
Discovering your perfect wedding dress among your lost mother’s clothes places a powerful checkmark in the joy column.
“Could I wear it?” I asked my sisters.
Of the three of us, I was the short one, like my mother.
“Try it on,” they urged.
This was the ’80s, when brides sailed down the aisle with wads of tulle and taffeta swagged around them like flouncy sails.
Mom’s dress was simple. Most likely, it was made by a seamstress in Toronto, where her family immigrated from England following World War I.
In ivory satin, it had a sweetheart neckline, long, narrow sleeves ending in 1940s-era points, and a dropped waist.
It fit almost perfectly.
Wearing that gleaming dress was like climbing inside a pearl, whose nacreous glow lit our faces.
For a moment, time ran backward to 1943, especially when we called my father into the room.
The dress soaked up more tears that day, adding to the memories.
A chain of love
As a numbers game, marriage seems a ludicrous proposition. It’s a loser’s bet when half are slated to fail, with collateral wreckage sometimes ricocheting for years.
Also, when marriage is denied to some, is it fair to be among those for whom it’s sanctioned?
Yet, this dress argues for taking the chance, despite the odds and the obstacles.
My parents were married 40 years. My husband and I have been together for 30.
The dress is a starting link in a long chain of events that created 10, soon to be 11 families, connecting 29 people.
The dress argues for the continuity of family. It makes the case that love is the most important thing we pass on.
And the dress says, what the heck? Risk it all and jump off the cliff, holding someone’s hand. Dare to build a life with that person. Honor your commitment.
My mother took the leap in a beautiful ripple of satin.
So did I, but with a lot more champagne.
Last summer, Christina and I inspected the dress, to see if it could withstand another wedding.
But it’s now too fragile to wear. Seams have dissolved. The fabric has lost some of its slippery, liquid mercury feeling.
Besides, my biologist daughter is a practical and modern woman. Vintage romanticism is not her style.
For her oceanfront wedding in the Keys, she chose a simple silk dress that, coincidentally, is the exact color of my mother’s.
In her dark hair, she’ll wear a satin flower made from a piece of her grandmother’s dress.
On that day, the woman she never knew, who is nearly as responsible for her existence as I am, will be walking with her down the aisle.
The rest of the dress will be carefully stored.
My younger sister has two daughters. My older sister has two granddaughters. My daughter may have a daughter of her own.
I hope all of them will have their own flowers made from fabric that by then may be close to 100 years old.
My mother’s wedding dress and her memory may live on during years and years of weddings.
How she would have loved that.
At each wedding, we’ll toast her memory.
And I hope each wedding dress will be splattered with champagne and tears.