The Crash of Wall Street. The Great Depression. Ironic that, although these epic events in American history coincide exactly with my mother’s teen years, she would insist, “We didn’t know there was a ‘Depression’.”
Actually it makes sense. Her parent’s livelihood didn’t depend on cash. Their wealth was in their livestock, the land my maternal great-grandparents homesteaded, water shares, grazing rights, and the food they were expert at providing for their own table. Their security and status in the community came from family and neighbor connections, pioneer ingenuity, intelligence, good health, horse sense, and a stable of four beautiful daughters with their three strapping cowboy brothers.
I assume my grandfather would be disappointed that I inherited little of his talent and fascination with horses. Well-known in his region, he was awarded a contract with the Remount Service. Having run short during previous wars, the US military acquired stallions with good bloodlines and placed them with farmers and ranchers throughout the country. These horses could be used for farm work, transportation, racing and breeding while in reserve for military applications. Grandpa was entrusted with government Thoroughbreds, a hot-blooded, big-hearted, courageous, somewhat temperamental breed–much like himself, Grandma, and their children.
How did I get this far from my intended subject, a dress from the 1930s Mother kept more than sixty years in her cedar chest? Or did I? Imagining life for my mother and her mother (who made the dress) rightfully includes what went on in the corral and barn–although male and female worlds were drawn as distinct. Perhaps this is how I needed to introduce my own connection, the 21st century male descendent who dared claim the cedar chest as part of my inheritance (despite having sisters among my siblings).
Mother kept a multitude of treasures packed in cardboard boxes on basement shelves, stashed in bins under our concrete porches, buried in the soft folds of her dresser drawers, nestled into the velvet lining of her jewelry box, or latched inside an old pasteboard suitcase high in the hall cupboard next to her room. But exploring any of these storage venues lacked the ceremony of opening the cedar chest. Midst the drabness and disarray of our unfinished basement, treasures–unsullied, safeguarded, in secret order–awaited discovery. The chest’s waterfall profile lid hinged upward. That meant clearing everything off the top. The button-operated catch (with its never-used keyhole) mystified me for years; I trusted only Mother could access this personal ark or casket–yeah, there was allusion to waking one’s dead as the inside of the lid stood in warm, bright contrast against the gray concrete wall behind it.
Usually first to catch my attention were dried roses, turned almost black, fragile relics of her courtship, a Valentine’s Day, or anniversary shared with my father. At that same instant came the scent of cedar (one of the smells that recalls my mother). Combined with the red-streaked, soft-sanded wood–unfinished on the inside–this was an aesthetic experience with furniture like no other in my home.
As children, our quest was usually the chance to see Mother’s wedding dress with its sweetheart neckline, pointed sleeves and yards of train spreading in a semi-circle. If our knees weren’t encrusted from digging in the sandbox, we were allowed to hold the heavy satin across our laps. Overlooked during most of these cedar chest openings was the dress I’d like to write about today. (Her spectacular formal wedding gown eclipsed everything else Mother kept there. And she didn’t write specifically about the contents. It was left to my siblings and me to decipher each object’s story from what we knew about Mother–and from the object itself.)
For example, in contrast to the party dress I’ll describe below, there was the daytime outfit Mom wore to stand before a justice of the peace. (It’s true. My parents were married by a civil servant three days before their sacred ceremony–when they were both bedecked in traditional white.) This is the attire of a working girl in the early 40s: a black straight skirt and emerald silk blouse. My older sister knew why Mother had saved these pieces; my younger sister took them to enjoy.
I remember my older sister calling our attention to the ephemeral dress of fabric so weightless it is easily compressed to the size of a grapefruit. The light peach dotted net had been meticulously sewn unlined. My sister folded the dress back up and we forgot it again.
Fast forward seven years to a couple of Saturdays ago going through Mother’s things from the cedar chest. I noticed a stain on the net dress–probably from pinning a fresh flower at the waist the night she wore it. Having had good success using Basic H as a spot remover–it doesn’t leave a ring–I worked on the stain from the front and back of the fabric. Since Mother graduated from high school in 1934, I knew there was a good chance the stain was set. But, after a few minutes’ work, it looked like it had faded some. Sunlight can also fade old stains. It was a cloudy day; I decided the dress wouldn’t be hurt by those cool ultraviolet rays. I used a plastic jacket hanger to hang the dress against the full length window in my front balcony door, then turned my attention elsewhere.
During the next few hours, walking back and forth through the front room, I began to realize that the dress was very much like a painting hanging there. The plain gray sky behind the dress had enlightened my perception of it. The seams were the carefully executed lines of an artist. I stopped. A piece of art was exactly what I was looking at!
I end my writing where I began–only now filling in the details of my grandmother’s life. My mother, who was proud of her own sewing ability, said her mother was way more accomplished. Yes, an artist.
Grandma was pressed into learning household arts at a very young age. She was only eight when her mother died. She was also a good student and, like Laura Ingalls Wilder, began teaching after graduation from the academy. She was seventeen. At twenty-one, she married my grandfather. She gave birth to nine children, seven of whom lived beyond infancy. Her life could have been consumed by the endless tasks of surviving in the barely-tamed wilderness: gardening, canning on the coal cook stove, soap making in a tub over a fire in the back yard. She baked all the bread they ate, she and Grandpa slaughtered and dressed their meats, fed her ravenous family at least three squares a day, put on enormous feeds for the itinerant threshers. Mother said Grandma sewed everything the girls wore including slips, new dresses at Christmas and the 4th of July, outfits for their dolls. She cut her own patterns from catalog pictures or her daughters’ sketches. All on the treadle machine she kept in the kitchen hall. When fabric ran out, she remade clothes.
But Grandma did more. She grew flowers at her window and outside in her yard. She encouraged her children in music and dance. She was a dramatist. And, when she did handwork, dressed her daughters for an evening out, she worked her art.
The dress represents at least two threads of Grandma’s story: Mabel Behunin Guymon’s ability to guide a needle, bring fabrics together was one expression of her creativity. The presence of the dress among my mother’s treasures represents another: Mom must have sensed that–not only was her mother gifted–but this was her mother’s gift to her.
Now it’s my turn to admire both.
Find what’s yours . . . truly, danscir52
copyright 2013 Dan Christensen all rights reserved