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The Valentine’s dress

A gesture of love by my mom when I was 8 years old made for a February 14 I’ll never forget.

Gracia Lam

Being an extremely busy parent of five, my mom was grateful, I’m sure, for one of the rules of the parochial school we attended. We were required to wear uniforms.

At the end of summer, instead of visiting multiple stores for back-to-school shopping, my mother got everything at the factory store in Worcester — a couple of white blouses, a plaid skirt, a bow tie, and a beanie for me and each of my three sisters. My younger brother got by with black pants and a shirt, and we were set for the school year.

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There is something comforting about having to wear a uniform to school. It was a nice feeling to arrive there looking pretty much like everyone else. We felt part of a community, where no one appeared to have more material trappings than anyone else.

We all walked to school, even those of us who lived a mile and half away, so we didn’t know what kind of car anyone else’s family owned, either. Occasionally, though, there would be the special days at school like St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween, and other holidays, where the sister who taught my class would let us wear our own clothes. I think those civilian clothes days were my introduction to the different hierarchies of wealth.

At 8 years old I didn’t know a Laura Ashley outfit from one bought at Sears, but I knew that the girl next to me had the most beautiful sweater and gorgeous bow in her hair to match. Others in the room had ruffled socks, soft embroidered jackets, and even party dresses. It was always good to get back into the safe and secure uniform the next day.

Then came Valentine’s Day. “You may all wear something red tomorrow,” the nun announced to my class. Amid the “oohs and aahs” I heard around me, my stomach turned over, and my mouth went dry. I couldn’t think of a single red thing I owned.

“Mom, can we go shopping? I need to get something red to wear to school tomorrow.” Being the middle child, one is often a little invisible, and I must have tried for my mom’s attention 10 times before she realized what I had said. Her answer was an absolute no. She had a million things to do, and Dad wasn’t getting paid until Thursday.

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Off I went rummaging through all the clothes in the few crowded closets I shared with four siblings. The only red I found was on the cuff of the overalls I wore for Saturday play. As I thought about how beautiful the other girls were going to look, I felt sadder than sad.

I couldn’t hide my tears any longer as I said good night to my mom and dad, and looking back now, I bet it broke my mom’s heart a little, too.

Waking up on the Valentine’s morning that I’ll never forget, I rubbed my sleepy eyes because I couldn’t believe what I saw. My dear, inexhaustible mother had found my last year’s first Holy Communion dress and some red felt. She’d painstakingly cut out perfect red hearts — tons of them, some little, some big — and sewed each one onto my white dress. There it was hanging outside the closet door, the most beautiful dress I had ever seen.

All these years later, I’m a grandmother to seven children, and during my lifetime I have at times worn one sort of uniform or another. I’m happy to say I prefer being my own individual, confident self now. I usually don’t envy the outfits of others, and I enjoy expressing myself in many fashions, but to this day, I doubt I’ve ever felt more special than that Valentine’s Day at school in my dazzling white organza dress with the red hearts.

Nancy McCarthy owns a fitness studio in Newburyport. Send comments to connections@globe.com.

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