Three generations of wedding dresses have resided in my closet: my grandmother’s, my daughter’s, and mine. My grandmother’s is a replica of her original gown, which she ripped apart, then re-created in miniature, sewing it by hand to fit the bride doll that presided over the dessert table at my aunt’s wedding over fifty years ago.
The doll is in pieces now, her parts–head, arms, legs—detached from her faded-pink torso, all body-bagged together in a jumbo Ziploc. Her face, webbed with fine cracks, is just as beautiful as ever: toothbrush-stiff eyelashes fringe pale blue eyes that open and shut flirtatiously; Cupid’s bow lips frame four tiny teeth, and her cheeks are eternally rosy. Upon her blonde hair, now matted with time, rests a still-crisp flower-trimmed veil. Pearl earrings, clipped onto her hair, match the necklace she wore when she had a neck. Her limbless torso sports the handmade undies, slip, and bead-trimmed satin dress, intact after half a century.
My grandmother’s marriage was not intact at the time she decided to disassemble her own gown. She had left my grandfather–almost unheard of in those days—and shocked her family to the point of denial that such a disgraceful thing had happened. As a child, I never heard the word “divorce” applied to them, only that Grandma and Grandpa weren’t living together any more. The arrangement was never discussed in my company, but a cloud of gloom descended upon my mother whenever I questioned her about their separate lives. I never knew what really happened, but I’ve surmised it from what I know of their history.
It was an arranged marriage between two people who may never have been in love, people so different that, had they been living today, would never have gotten past a first date. Added to that were the tragedies of two sons who died in separate incidents years apart, and then the Depression, which forced them to move from their bucolic home in Georgia to live in the home of relatives in Baltimore. Clinical depression then overtook my grandmother. After some time spent in Shepard-Pratt, an institution for the mentally ill, she emerged a different person: strong, independent, and determined to divorce my grandfather. “She just wasn’t the same Mama any more,” says my mother. Even now, at 90, my mother still mourns her parents’ divorce.
Maybe that’s why it took me two years after the fact to break the news of my own divorce to her. She found it almost as hard to comprehend as I do, that my marriage of almost 40 years had ended. Her own marriage to my father lasted until he died two days before their 60th anniversary. Somehow they stuck it out through times when maybe they shouldn’t have, and came out the clear winner in the generational marriage sweepstakes. My sister has been divorced once, my brother twice; I never imagined it would happen to me.
But it has, and at the about the same age my grandmother was when she divorced. And although times have changed and a late-life divorcee today isn’t the social pariah that a late-life divorcee was 50 years ago, some things never change. Finances, for one, and that’s a big one. Loneliness, for another, although I have many caring friends, and – a strange experience at this age – men friends. But there are still those moments when the rooms seem far too quiet and the bed seems way too big, and I wonder if I’ll ever share my life again with someone that I love.
I wonder if my grandmother felt that way when she took the scissors to her wedding dress, sliced through the satin and snipped it all apart. I wonder how it would feel to destroy my own wedding dress, the Priscilla of Boston gown I imagined my daughter wearing someday at her own wedding (she didn’t), the elegant dress in the wedding pictures that I’ve put away forever. Could I pull it down from the top shelf of the closet, shake it out of its plastic bag, bite into its silken folds with my big sewing shears? Would I re-create my dress in miniature to dress a smiling-faced doll, or would I snip and snip and snip until the dress was reduced to confetti?
There were days when my marriage was ending when I would have shred the dress into tiny little bits, not just with a scissors but my teeth. Those were the angry days, the days I wished I had never married the man who had brought such misery into my life. Then there were days I would have cradled the gown in my arms, soaking it in tears of nostalgia and regret. Those were the sad days, the days when I longed for the days long past, when we were together and happy.
But I neither shred it nor soaked it; for most of its life, I rarely thought about it. The gown slept in its plastic bag for nearly 40 years, awakened only to be tried on twice, once by my brother’s fiancée—his first wife, first divorce—and the other by my daughter who was humoring me but who really wanted her very own gown. It wasn’t until I was packing to move from our marital house to my singleton apartment that I came upon the dress and its dilemma: toss it, take it, or tear it up.
“Dye it black,” a friend suggested, “and wear it to your ex’s funeral.” I considered that briefly as the definitive fashion statement, but what if I went first? And if I didn’t, that meant keeping it for what could be (with luck) at least a couple of decades. Did I really want it around that long, just taking up space? I had returned my daughter’s dress to her; it was time to get rid of my own.
I hung it on the rack of clothes I was giving to Goodwill. It’s just a dress, I told myself, a dress I wore once long ago. But as I reached out and touched it to say a last goodbye, I knew I couldn’t let go. I suddenly understood what my grandmother had done when she whittled her gown to a condensed version of itself. She had kept it after all–in its new incarnation as a dress for the doll that presided at my aunt’s wedding. In refashioning her past into hope for the future, my grandmother knew that while marriages may end, it’s not the end of love.
I moved. I sold some things, gave away others, threw away a lot. I saved the things that meant the most to me: my mother’s copper teapot, generations of family albums, my father’s passport and ship’s passage from Russia in 1912.
The bride doll dressed by my grandmother.
And my own bridal gown.
St. Petersburg Times 10/06/02