A Life Lesson

An example of Louis Slobodkin's artwork, the c...
An example of Louis Slobodkin’s artwork, the cover of The Hundred Dresses, written by Eleanor Estes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Life Lesson

“After a long, long time she reached an important conclusion. She was never going to stand by and say nothing again.”
― Eleanor EstesThe Hundred Dresses

[1]

There is a beautiful children’s story titled, The Hundred Dresses, written in 1944 by, Eleanor Estes. [2]  It is the tale of a poor Polish immigrant’s daughter and this young woman’s illustrations of the one hundred dresses she wished to own. It also depicts the cruelty of peers, and the optimistic spirit and strength of the young character. If you have never read this beautiful, humbling tale, you must.  With a few tweaks to the setting, Este’s story caught my heart and I remembered a story my mother shared.  This was the beginning of our personal Cold War period, we were drifting apart.  However, our wishes were similar.  We wanted to fit in with peers, we wanted to be accepted, and we both wanted a pretty dress.

It was another episode of teen angst and a teen’s foolish desire to fit in.  I continued to needle away at my mother, pricking at her with my demands and words, “I don’t have any nice clothes!  I wear the same things all the time! Everybody else has nice clothes, I have nothing!”  Which was partly true.  I had hand made clothes, refurbished silks and damasks, cut and stitched.  My mother, an artistic, creative, inventive woman, could artfully combine textures, patterns, and colours of fabric.  My mother delighted in the process of combining satin and silks to form a Japanese inspired kimono complete with frog closures, Grace!  Mother found pleasure sewing beautiful dresses for me.  Always seeing with a brilliant, artistic eye, mother had undeniable flair and style.  Tops were colour blocked, shifts were embellished with rickrack or ribbon at the neckline and hem.  Christmas dresses were luxe velvet with Peter Pan collars. Money was tight so mother would source unusual and beautiful fabrics, remnants from the fabric stores along Dunbar Street.  On a whim, mom would pull the curtains down and remake them into outfits for the girls. My mother chose Vogue patterns for their clean, elegant lines.  There were several years of Christmases where my sister and I would choose our choice of coloured velvet, “I’d like green velvet.  Please, put a Peter Pan collar on the dress.”  Always, my mother would oblige and delight us with a stunning dress.  I recall one beautiful dress my mother made for me to attend my Grade Seven Graduation in.  It was the 60s and op art was the rage.  Mother found a green, yellow, lilac and turquoise blue, Pucci inspired print, which she fashioned into a sheath style dress. [3]  Next, she attached a sheer lilac fabric overlay.  It was haute couture for a rural Coquitlam elementary school graduation. Shoes, you need the right shoes, Grace.  We’d hop on the local bus and head to the Army and Navy Department Store, in downtown Vancouver, to source out lilac suede shoes.  I admit, my mother had a flair for design and she created gorgeous pieces of clothing for us to wear.  Suddenly, mom’s efforts weren’t good enough for me.  I wanted a store bought outfit and I was determined to berate and wear her down, eventually into submission.  I wanted a pretty dress!  Crying, slamming the door to my bedroom, flouncing around, quite certain that the world was going to end if I didn’t get a new store bought dress.  After awhile, my mother flung open the bedroom door and harshly reminded me to, “sit up and stop the damn nonsense!”  Never gentle in her approach when harried or cross, mom preferred to bark out words.  I knew to stop the nonsense.

My mother proceeded to share a personal experience.  The setting was a classmate’s birthday party my mother had been invited to attend. “ I owned two dresses, one for church and one for school.  I wore my school dress practically every day.  The old man didn’t care.  One day, a girl in my class invited me to her birthday party.  I was so excited to be invited to a party.  Arriving at the hostess’ house, gift in hand, I couldn’t wait to play with the other girls.  They were popular girls and they had more pretty dresses than I did.  I was flattered and surprised to be invited to the girl’s party.   Afterward, one of the girls told me I was invited because they wanted to see if I would wear the same old, school dress.  The girls were laughing at me.”  My mother had tears in her eyes.

I felt ashamed when mother left the room.  I recalled a time mother had a party to attend.  Up late, sewing until after midnight, mother spent hours reworking and fashioning a gilded empire waist number, with a bronze satin sash, only to toss it. I don’t like it; people asked if I was pregnant!

My mother’s words, the tremor in her voice, the shame, mirrored in her lowered eyes, as she retold the birthday party disaster, pacing back and forth in front of my bed, haunted me.  I vowed that I would behave better, demand less of her.  I felt sorry for her.  I decided that I would find a way to earn money; beginning to appreciate that money would be helpful if I wanted to independently shop. I also vowed that I would never see my mother ashamed again and it became my mission to find a way to please her.

Many years later, I was wandering the Children’s Section of a local bookstore for a book to give my daughter.  I discovered, Eleanor Este’s heart rendering story.  Turning the pages, my eyes skimming the print, I realized the book paralleled my mother’s story.  My mother is 84 and life has not always been kind to her.  Insecurity and anxiety resurface.  Frugal, my mother subsides on a government pension and savings; she exists in the subgroup, titled, below the poverty line.  Mom no longer sews, however her eyes light up when she receives gifts of pretty tops and the occasional colourful, Vera Bradley tote.  The designer, painter, and seamstress in her automatically comments on the pattern, the colour, and the workmanship.  Always, there is gratitude in my mother’s eyes, as, child like, she hastily opens the gift, I’ve always liked a damask print. My it’s a bit bright, Grace!  Purple and blue are per-r-fect colours. They chintz out on the button threads, don’t they?

I want my mother to feel pretty for her remaining moments in time and to know that I recognize the efforts she went to, designing and sewing my clothes, trying to please and protect me, hoping I would fit in, safe from the cruelty of taunts and comments.  I want my mother to realize that I caught her pain and observed her strength.  I want my mother to know that only now do I fully appreciate the life lesson she taught me, many years ago when I wanted a pretty dress.

4 thoughts on “A Life Lesson

  1. I grew up with homemade dresses in the 70’s. I never minded until she started making my brother’s shirts to match my dresses. My little mind only saw her trying to make us match. It never dawned on me that she had bought the only fabric she could afford and was making as much use of it as possible.

  2. What a beautiful story. I love the positive spin you put on it all, while still showing the heartache underneath it all. Your description of your mother’s creation is gorgeous. My paternal grandmother was a dressmaker, and I have written about her work in the past and intend to do more in the future, so that and the fact that I always felt as if my clothes were much less than the other kids really rang some bells for me.
    Also, I have a collection of Newbery and Caldecott books, but do not have and have never read The Hundred Dresses. It sounds amazing!

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