When you consider the time and place in which my mother grew up, the home in which she was raised, and the influence of Aunt Alice who principally raised her, it is perhaps easy to understand that my mother may have been like many of her generation, who attach less importance to objects than many people do in this day and age. When the children were given gifts which they might have kept as keepsakes, such as the rosary beads Laurence Kettle brought for them from Rome, my mother's grand-aunt Alice would not allow the children to keep them. Sometimes Alice would give away such items to other people, whom she felt would truly value such gifts or make better use of them; other times, these things simply vanished.
There were some items my mother seemed to treasure, prayer books, rosary beads, and the like. Occasionally Mom would tell me stories which involved special gifts she had received when she was a young woman, and I would ask her if she still had any of them. There were a couple she had kept, but the rest were long gone. At times it appeared as though she did not lament their loss, something which seemed odd to me, given that I viewed keepsakes as treasures because of the memories they hold.
I believed I understood the way in which my mother viewed keepsakes, and then there was a day last summer, a few weeks after my mom died, when we were cleaning out her home. We found things which undid any assumptions I may have held about what Mom kept and what she threw away.
On a warm Thursday morning, I use a small kitchen ladder to reach to the top of the cupboard, to draw down the old box. I unlace the worn white ribbon which holds the box together, and lift the lid. As I draw back the layers of tissue paper, the sight of a small white dress within the folds of the paper catches me completely off guard. It literally takes my breath away, and I begin to cry. It is the dress I wore for my first holy communion.
A little further down inside that old square box, I draw out another piece enveloped in still more layers of delicate paper. It is the silken under-dress of the little outfit. Time has yellowed it, but the lace which edges the hem is still intact, and all of it remains so soft and lovely. Further, I uncover the sheer long chiffon sleeves which buttoned unto the short sleeves of the dress, so that my arms would be covered during the ceremony. The last piece cocooned inside the paper is the veil.
As I unwrap each piece I lay them one beside the other across my mother’s bed. The silver embroidery on the bodice of the dress sparkles in the morning light, as does the silver thread which subtly adorns the chiffon skirt. Each part is deeply wrinkled from years of living inside that box.
Memories come rushing forward so fast as to knock me off my feet, and suddenly I am that little seven year old girl again, marching in procession up the aisle with my mother and my father on either side of me, sitting in the church and noticing how very tall the priest and the altar servers seem to be. Outside of the church after the ceremony an elderly nun leans down to congratulate me. Her old fashioned wimple seems to square her face like a picture frame. I remember proudly showing her the gold and silver communion medal, sent to me from Ireland by my Uncle Gerard.
As I sit there on my mother’s bed, I ask myself why it is that the presence of this little white dress wounds me so deeply? What is it that I have invested in the memories lying here before me? Am I hurt to know that Mom kept the dress hidden from me, or more likely am I weeping because it seems as though my mother treasured something that I once treasured too?
As I was thinking all of these thoughts, it occurred to me that a part of the outfit was missing, the little tiara wrapped in tiny white flowers which held the veil in place. Then, I remembered that I had been allowed to adorn the head of one of my dress up dolls with it, and now it is long gone. Suddenly it occurs to me that my mother did not hide the communion dress from me; she preserved it for me.
This little white dress is something which deeply connects me to my mother. I believe my mom knew I would be the one to find that silver and white hatbox. Now she is gone, so I cannot tell Mom how much it means to me to know she did not give it away, and how very grateful I am that she kept it for me. Still, I feel certain that somehow she knows.
|On the day of my first communion, in|
the treasured dress, on the steps
of the church.