When I was four years old, my mother showed me how to thread a needle. I threaded my first and, probably, my two-hundredth needle that day. Parents often praise their children even when no real praise is merited. They lie to be encouraging. When I threaded needles that day, my mother would say, “Good job, Kelly.” It was one of the few times she ever said something resembling praise, but I didn't need any praise for my sewing. I knew it wasn't very good. Even as a little girl, I knew if I kept doing it I would get better.
Sewing was an important job. It was a skill that benefited everyone, a skill that was necessary. It was something grown-up women did, and to be welcomed into that circle and entrusted with important tasks, like making and fixing family clothes, was a revelation. It was maturity, and freedom, and self sufficiency.
It was an awakening.
There is very little I remember from the time before I began to sew. I have an image in my mind of winter, of a big white window illuminated by the snowy trees and snowy ground and snowy sky outside. I can see a dog sleeping by a glowing wood stove. I can see the firelight shining on the very tips of his back and neck fur, and I can see the light change slightly with each deep, sleepy dog breath. I don't know if it is a true memory, or something my mind has pieced together over time, but other than the dog by the fire, my first real memories began that day, the day I started working on my first dress.
It was maroon. It had a rippled tent and puffed shoulders and three-quarter sleeves. There were white fringes here and there, white lace with shapes I optimistically saw as flowers and sunshine. My mother helped me with the stitching but I threaded every needle. She cut the fabric but I helped with the measurements. My mother later told me it took about four hours to finish. I was fully engrossed in every moment. If you had asked the four-year-old me how long it took, she'd have said “I don't know, but look!” and twirled the tent with long, ecstatic spins powered by victorious giggles.
Later I would make my first church dress. Then I'd make my first formal dress. I'd wear it to my Aunt Carrie's wedding and people would put their hands on my cheeks and tell me how cute I was. “So cute,” was the answer according to other members of the wedding celebration.
Just so darned cute.
I made, myself, my first prom dress, and went on to make three more. I made my first winter formal dress, and three more of those, too. I made my first wedding dress.
My first, and only, wedding dress.
I made many first dresses. I don't know if I've made my last dress yet.
It didn't stop at simply sewing. Sewing, knitting, crocheting, and quilting. I started at four and stopped twice. I stopped for a few months when my husband died. I simply didn't feel like sewing anymore. I broke both of my wrists in a car accident when I was twenty-three years old and didn't touch a needle and thread for six months. When I could stitch and crochet again I spent a year making scarves and hats in constant pain. I didn't mind, I was making things again, and I just assumed the pain would eventually go away.
It didn't, not fully. But what started as a full-speed locomotive level of pain slowed to a cruising-bus level of pain. That moved to a small car rounding a parking lot level of pain. It became manageable. It became part of the process, and even a reminder of the fact that the crash could have taken the use of my hands altogether. It was another item to be thrown on the ever-growing pile of things that could be accepted because, you know...
It could be worse.
It could be worse.
“The dresses are here, girls!”
Women in their seventies and eighties don't generally leap up from their chairs. I know the five of us don't. We don't tend to leap from anywhere, but each Tuesday when the delivery van pulls up in front of Felicia's house, a part of us leaps.
“Anthony said he'd have ten for us today,” Felicia announces “so we can each bring two back to the house and then we'll see what we're working with.”
When Felicia says “Anthony” we all smile. She smiles back and tilts her chin up just a little. She takes great joy in being the one who got to talk to Anthony on the phone. We're older women, married or widowed, but we're not blind. Anthony is tall, broad, and just the right amount of Italian. He brightens the day just a little, and certainly more than the other two drivers. Now that I think about it I couldn't even tell you the names of the others, even after three months. Chris, maybe? Craig?
“Good morning, Anthony,” Angie calls from the front walk. Anthony opens the van's large sliding side door.
“Good morning, ladies. We've got a beautiful set of dresses for you this week.”
As we begin draping the dresses carefully over our arms, Felicia offers her hand to Anthony. As the owner of the house, she feels an obligation to follow the normal protocols of civility expected from a host or hostess. But on the Tuesdays when Anthony is driving, her handshake seems to last just a little bit longer. Her smile lingers.
“Thank you Anthony. 10:00am on the nose, I could set my watch by you.”
“My pleasure, Mrs. Sheridan, it's such great work you ladies do here and I'm just happy to be a part of it.”
Anthony is a good boy, raised well. I imagine he has zero things in common with us old widows, and yet here he is smiling, laughing with us, entertaining our small talk and trying to entertain back.
“Busy day ahead?” Felicia asks.
“Nine to five, ma'am. I'm blessed with work.”
A good boy. He lays two dresses, wrapped in their protective plastic, over my arms. They're both wedding gowns, I can feel it. The weight is different, there is something about wedding dresses. They wrap around you, press into you, pull you downward. I have to brace myself with wedding gowns. From the way Cheryl is walking, she got two evening gowns. She is up the walk and into the house first. She is four months younger than I am, too, so that might explain it.
“Well Anthony, it is always a pleasure,” Felicia says, shaking his hand again. “Do please thank Mrs. Arsden for us.”
“Until next time.”
Anthony smiles. I'm more than halfway up the walk, twenty feet away, but I smile back.
The two tables Felicia sets up in her living room each week are big enough to allow the dresses to lie side by side, their necklines hanging over one end of the tables and their trains hanging over the other. With the dresses laid out we can plan. There are six wedding dresses, two deep blue evening gowns – one high waste and one tent – a lacy white summer dress and a dress for a young girl, most likely a dress for a flower girl, or maybe a first communion.
Felicia and I tend to take wedding dresses. She decided that would be best as we have the most experience with the variety and the fragility of wedding dress design and materials. Cheryl and Alice will take an occasional wedding dress, the simpler ones, but stay mainly within the evening and prom gowns. Angie takes the more unique pieces.
Like small dresses for flower girls or for first communions.
The whole process is very systematic now. It wasn't always like that, but as annoying and bossy as Felicia can be, I can't question her organizational skills. Our first meeting was chaos. Our second meeting was decent. After two sessions, Felicia had her systems set, and I have to admit that in every essential process, she set out tasks and timing perfectly.
I'll never tell her that.
“Alright, ladies, shall we?”
We all nod and stand together in the kitchen. We hold hands in a circle and bow our heads as Angie begins:
“Dear heavenly Father, we thank you Lord for these gifts you've brought us today. We ask that you guide our hands as we make these beautiful dresses into works of love and compassion for the families in need, and we pray that these dresses would be a blessing to all of the families who receive them. May your light and love shine in the hearts of these families in this very difficult time, and may your peace be on them. Thank you for all that you have given us and bless us as we walk from here, in Jesus' name, Amen.”
“Amen,” we say, each squeezing the hands we are holding.
The first cut is the hardest. Even after all of these weeks, all of the dresses I've cut into, I still panic as the scissors open and the fabric runs in between the blades. I will never feel the satin give in to the sharp edges of the scissors, never feel the first piercing of the needle through fabric, without sucking in a long, quiet breath, and then holding that breath until the cut or the stitch is done. Each Tuesday, looking down at a new dress, I tell myself today will be different. Today, cutting into someone's wedding dress will be no big deal. But the wedding dress on the table in front of me is no different. It takes my first breath and holds it hostage until the scissors snip shut and the long three-quarter sleeve falls severed to the table.
I remind myself that the bride is not going to run into the room and scream at me for cutting up her dress. I remind myself that the bride's mother is not going to curse at me. There might be a daughter who could have worn this dress, too, just as her mother did. Will this little girl run into the room and demand that I sew the arm to her precious, heirloom wedding dress back on? It's a silly thought from a silly old woman, but I don't imagine I'll ever be free of it.
“Look at this train, girls,” Felicia calls out, gasping her amazement as she stretches out the long satin folds. “I'll be able to get seven, maybe eight little dresses out of the train alone.”
The girls nod and gasp their own agreement. I nod, quietly. The dress shimmers in the sunlight beneath Felicia's dark and wrinkled fingers. Such a dress was not meant to be pulled at and held up by those hands. Such a dress should slide silently over perfect young skin. Silk on porcelain.
Cheryl holds up her deep blue gown.
“Felicia, is this okay for the boys?”
“Yes, it's perfect, and I was sorting through some of my buttons and I think I have some perfect matches for the two-button suits.”
Felicia knows exactly where her button case is. She strides to it. I should be focused on my work but I can't stop watching her. I know her choreography. I know what her foot position will be when she stops and reaches for the case. I know the angle her body will assume, the angle at her shoulder, her elbow, her wrist, as she picks it up with her right hand and supports it from below with her left. Her shoulders will seesaw back and forth, up and down, as she tiptoes back to her seat. I know the way she will hand Cheryl the buttons she has so thoroughly considered. She'll cup her hand and offer the buttons to be taken, the way she holds treats out for her dogs.
I watched too long. I feel the needle slip, feel it crunch into the tip of my left index finger. When I was four I stuck my finger and pulled the needle out and watched the blood wriggle out from the wound and slither down my finger and into my palm. I passed out. I don't remember passing out, but I remember my mother telling me about the incident that night when she was tucking me into bed.
“It was just a little blood, honey,” she said. “You'll bleed a lot in this life.”
The inevitable finger stick. It's a part of the process now, I wait for it, almost eagerly. I wait for the sting, for the taste of iron in my mouth when I suck at the wound. I used to make a show of it for the ladies. Now it is just for me. The pain drops me into the mind of the mothers, slips me seamlessly into their skin, into a breath of their pain.
My first dress was made with my own hands. Now, I'm sewing two pieces of satin I've cut from a wedding dress into a loose, simple dress nine inches tall. I've used a section of the wedding dress with jewel embellishments. The original pattern ran down from the shoulders and across the chest, a small portion narrowing to a point at the base of the sternum. Now, my tiny dress has a glittering swirl flowing down its left side, top to bottom.
Once the dress is done, I try to touch it as little as possible. When clipping the last bit of extra thread or cutting excess lace, I prepare for the final action. Before the dress is complete, right at the end, I stop. I remember why we are here making these little dresses. I think about the little ones who will wear them. I imagine parents sliding the shimmering cloth over the baby's head, threading the little arms through the sleeves, pulling at the skirt of the dress until it nearly touches those tiny feet.
We're making what have come to be known as Angel Gowns.
In seventy-two years I had never been to a baby or a child's funeral. Neither had Angie, until one of the young mothers from her church lost her daughter, Emily. Sudden infant death syndrome. The young mother woke to find her little Emily unconscious and not breathing. An ambulance was called but they'd answered that type of call before. They performed their duty and worked to revive Emily, but when they arrived at the hospital they stopped. There was nothing more to do but note the time of death.
The mother mourned and Angie mourned with her. When Angie was invited to the service she invited me along for extra support. She thought the more people there, the better. The more hugs the mother received, the better. After my husband's funeral I'd told myself that was the last funeral I would attend until my own. I guess ten years softened me up a little. We went. Angie was part of a small group invited to a viewing of little Emily before the service and she brought me along. She insisted. There were a few dozen people there, sitting and standing and talking in low, solemn murmurs. There were chairs set out in rows facing the front of the room where Emily's casket sat open. Her parents were sitting to one side, greeting people as they made their way up the aisle. The mother was holding it together. She would take the hands of each person, smile and nod as they gave their condolences, and then thank them. Her thank yous were quiet, barely audible, but she pushed them out.
The father was a shattered man. He would nod, his fingers digging into the cushioned armrests of his chair, but he couldn't force out a thank you. He didn't say a single word. He wore the sadness and the pain as a red hot fury, eyes dark as volcanic ash, lava pouring red, raging tears down his cheeks. The crying wouldn't stop, and he didn't seem to want it to.
Angie greeted them first and gave her condolences. She gave the standard “anything you need, I'll be there” speech. I'm sure the parents heard it a hundred times that day. Then she introduced me as a friend and I took the mother's hand in mine and squeezed. I didn't know what to say so I didn't say anything. I just squeezed. I was still squeezing when I looked at little Emily lying in her casket. There were flowers around and inside it. There were ornate blankets and pillows, and a series of what must have been Emily's favorite stuffed animals lying at her sides: a small bear, a few different dogs and cats, a pony, and a few mythical or cartoon creatures.
The blankets and pillows matched well. They made sense. The stuffed animals, in their own weird way, made sense. But not the dress. Emily's dress stuck out in the casket for its drab color and rough texture. It looked like felt, or maybe thick rough cotton. The dress was a gray blue, almost dirty, with a white circular ruffle collar that lead, awkwardly, to puffed sleeves. Emily looked like a doll in a cheap doll dress. I didn't say this out loud, of course. Not until Angie and I left. She had been thinking the same thing.
When babies are stillborn, parents mourn. They cry, they rage, they wonder why it would happen to them. Then they have to plan the funeral for their precious boy or precious girl. They generally dress their children in clothes for their burial, but it is difficult to find acceptable outfits in those smallest sizes. When Felicia first came to me with the idea of making dresses and suits for children to be buried in, she told me parents are often forced to buy a doll from a toy store so they can use the doll's dress.
Now we meet once a week, and sometimes twice if our supplier has enough donated dresses for us. We meet so some parents won't have to say goodbye to and bury their children in clothes they got from a doll at Walmart.
Every session holds idle chit chat, run downs of the week's activities or gossip about Felicia's nearest neighbor, Mrs. Larramey, and her most recent faux pas. Last week it was poop Felicia found on her grass. She insisted it was cat poop, and the only person on the street with a cat is Mrs. Larramey. Two weeks ago, Felicia told us that Mrs. Larramey brought mail over, mail she said the mailman placed in her mailbox by mistake, and that she had opened it without realizing it wasn't addressed to her. She insisted that she hadn't read any of it, but Felicia didn't believe her. “Who opens mail without looking at the addresses?” Felicia asked us all.
I hope Mrs. Larramey does. I hope she did read the mail. I hope she read every word and letter and saved the really good parts. I hope she knows secrets about Felicia that she will tell me one day.
But after a little chit chat and no sign of a decent Mrs. Larramey story, we settle into quiet construction. Scissor snips, the rhythmic rocking of sewing machines, and gentle murmuring of NPR's “On Point” radio show. We listen, but we're not really listening. Occasionally, Cheryl will disagree with a point a presenter has made by sighing loudly and asking us if we can believe that guy or girl. We dutifully shake our heads and hope she doesn't press further.
Today, the chatting slows, as usual. But something is different today. Every time my needle pierces the fabric, something settles within me. I feel it, a downshift in the gears, a light squeal in the tracks as my train nears a certain station. I don't know if the other women feel it, too. If they are, then we are all hiding it from each other. We are trying to seal it in. We are trying to hold it for ourselves.
My first tears are silent. They fill the lower lids of my eyes and pitch in large, single tears over my lower lashes and fall into my lap. When I lean forward and try to blink through the tears, more fall onto the dress I'm working on, and onto my hands. They are soaking into the seams I'm smoothing out, soaking into the threads I'm tying off. I can't see what I'm doing, but I pretend to keep working. I feel along the seam I'm stitching. After all these years I don't really need to see what I'm doing. Another stitch, then another. I'm getting off my line. I try to drop the needle in again. It won't break through. I press again, harder. I know I'm pressing too hard but I can't stop.
I feel it in the other women, the weight of it. I'm trying not to sniff. I don't want the others to know. But then, I imagine her. I see the tiny, fragile snowflake, her tiny feet in white socks, her tiny legs cradled by the hemming of the dress. I see her chubby arms stretching from puffed, lacy sleeves. I can see her little belly under the frills, her closed eyes and tiny nose and perfect face resting, proud of her new dress, content. I can see the mother looking down on her precious daughter, one hand on each little cheek. I can see the father looking down on his baby, his little girl, his princess, sliding a hand over her hair, barely touching it.
I've been storing the reality of what we've been doing here. I've been sealing it in a deep pocket in my mind, stitching it in, trying to dismiss it. But now, sewing the third tiny dress of the day, the seams I've been sewing so tightly around that deep pocket are snapping. One by one, each stitch I sew, each time the scissors clip a thread, is breaking something loose. I'm holding in the noise but it is backing up, building. The weight of all of the dresses on all of the little girls...
A shriek, long and vibrating and terrible. The women all jump in their chairs. Cheryl grabs her chest. I do to. Then I hear the shrieking again, louder now. Felicia is looking at me. Angie, too. Everyone is looking at me.
I am shrieking. The sound is coming from me.
I try to stop but it overtakes me. I cry out again, and again. I stop to breathe, briefly, and cry out again. It is animal, primal, the polar sound of either violent birth or violent death. I am croaking and gasping and pouring streams of hot pain from my eyes and nose and mouth. I'm reaching out with my pain, out to the universe, screaming mindlessly and endlessly the way I imagine the mothers themselves must have cried.
The sudden shrieking terrifies all of us. They aren't noises most people hear every day, or month, or year. My crying was harsh and turbulent and awkward and unsettling.
And familiar. The suddenness is startling, yet we are all prepared, unafraid. The noise rises up like a crashing wave but somehow we all know it is coming and we listen and watch and feel it like it is our own. No one gets up to comfort me. No one tries to ease my pain. I think we've all been waiting for it, waiting for the wave to rise up over us and tumble down and drag us with it back out to sea. I was just the first of us to let go, but once my cries fill the room, the others join in. We stay in our places and cry. Everyone stops sewing. Cheryl cries first. Then Angie. Felicia briefly tries to press on through the tears. She fails, and the wave crashes over us, pushes and pulls and drags us into the deep.
The other women all have children. They all have grand children, and all but Felicia have great grand children. They like to say things like, “I can't even imagine. The thought of seeing my Sarah,” or “my Colleen,” or “my little Anna Marie,” and they cry at the thought of burying a child.
Greg and I never had children. Not that we didn't want them, we hoped for children for years. For decades. It just never happened. Friends would tell me not to worry, that when the time was right it would just happen. They told us God's timing is perfect, or that the universe would send us a child when we were ready.
Those seem like comforting things to say, but when it doesn't happen and then you have to see those friends again, and again, through years of well-wishing, through years of watching their children grow up and pass milestones and be “just the best thing ever,” it can strain relationships. It can make dinner parties awkward. After years of “being in” dozens of people's “prayers,” it gets harder for them to offer comfort.
I never felt the pain of losing a child. My pain is of a woman who couldn't have children. The other women are crying for their living children and grand children. I am crying for the children I never had. Every year, every month, sometimes every day for weeks at a time, I imagine the daughter I would have had, the son I could have raised. It is a dangerous thing to imagine the family you wanted. The mind makes thoughts like these more and more real. My imagined daughter was, at first, a faceless what-if, all hopes and dreams with little substance. She was mostly wonder for many years. Eventually, she earned a name, Hannah, along with short blonde hair and a love of horses. We started taking horseback riding trips into the mountains. I soon imagined what it would be like if she had a little brother named Jack. The imagining fanned out and shifted over time, until I'd envisioned school achievements and first crushes and graduations and wedding days and grand children and dozens of different possible paths the lives of my imagined children could have taken.
Now, feeling the satin, knowing where the tiny dress would be going, my beautiful Hannah has come back to me. It has been a long time since I've thought about her. It has been years since I colored in a new full chapter of her life, but here she is, in the swirling torrent of wailing and tears, looking at me with her short blonde hair. She is smiling and wearing a dress I made for her. She twirls and plays with the sash and bow at her waist. She asks me if I think she looks pretty. The thought of tying the sash into a bow around her waist and seeing that bow disappear into a closing coffin is too much.
I made my first dress at age four. The dresses I make today might be my last, but that is impossible to know. For the parents of miscarriage, for the parents of still birth, of sudden infant death, of heart defects and brain tumors and cancer, we make the first dress their little girls will ever wear. We make little blue suits, the first suits their little boys will ever wear. It is also the last thing they will ever wear. So here, every Tuesday in Felicia's house, we sit and sew and cry into our shimmering re-creations. We sew garments of passage, garments we hope will in some small way ease the passage of baby and parent. We cry into the fabric. We run our hands over it and fold it perfectly, ever so gently. We hope it is presentable. We hope it is as perfect as the most terrible of gifts can be. We think about our children, both real and imagined, and feel bad for being so grateful these dresses were never made for us.
Grateful for the first and last things.