The dress looks like one my mother wore when I was a child — crisp, white cotton festooned with big red flowers, a cinch waist, sleeveless, summery, pretty. I found it on a sale rack at Frugal Fannies last Saturday. I held it up to me. I tried it on.
It was a time machine.
I have a Kodachrome slide of my mother wearing a similar dress. She is standing under a rose-covered trellis in front of the house I lived in until I left home to get married, squinting because the sun is in her eyes. “Smile, Dot. Smile!” I hear my father shouting. He took the picture. He bought and painted the trellis. He planted the roses.
Only the picture remains.
We lived, before this, until I was 7, in a three-decker in Somerville on the second floor above the landlord. Sometimes my mother and I would take a bus to Central Square to shop. We’d visit the florist first and smell all the flowers, then thumb through magazines and comic books at the newsstand, then head for the five-and-ten, where we’d spend an hour poking around.
My favorite part of the day was sitting on the swirly stools at the soda fountain. I’d get a vanilla milkshake, and my mother would sip coffee and smoke a cigarette. And then we’d head for home.
Once in a while we would we make one more stop at a shop that sold ladies’ skirts and blouses and dresses. My mother would always gaze in that store’s window and point out all the pretty things, but only rarely would we go in. This was one of those times.
My mother had no reason for pretty things. She took care of me, and she worked part time at Howard Johnson’s. It was only later when she worked in retail, selling hats, that clothes were important, that she had an excuse to buy them.
But this was before then.
A bell tinkled when you opened the door of the small dress shop. Inside smelled as sweet as the florist’s. I saw the flowery dress first. It bedazzled.
I sat on the floor of the changing room and watched it transform my mother. She didn’t look the way she had sitting at the five-and-ten drinking coffee just a few minutes before.
She was 29. Of course she bedazzled. Of course she longed for pretty things. I told her she looked beautiful. I begged her to buy the dress, but she put it back on the hanger, thanked the salesladies for their help, and we walked across the street and rode the bus home.
I told my father about the dress. He always asked me, “What did you do today?” Maybe he drove to Central Square and bought it for her. Maybe she went back and bought it herself. I don’t know.
But she wore it for years. It moved to Randolph with us. She wore it to church on Sundays. She wore it to Storyland one August. She wore it posing on a sunny day under our trellis.
I am too old to be wearing a dress festooned with roses. I am not tall. I am not my mother. I am old enough now to be her mother.
But I am all that remains of her.
And so I bought the dress and brought it home and put it on and stood before the mirror and squinted the way she did when she was looking into the sun, hoping to see her and not me.
And I did. I saw her the way I remember her. I saw her not in the mirror but in my head and in my heart, where I always see her. I saw her under the trellis, swirling and smiling. I saw her young and pretty and happy.
I like to think she saw me, too, remembering her and missing her. The dress brought her back. The dress takes me back.