The dress was $85 dollars. It was ridiculously expensive. And cost almost my entire entertainment budget for the month of June. I felt guilty for spending that much money on a single item when I needed new work blouses and maybe a pair of shoes to expand my meager new career wardrobe. But I bought it anyway.
I was 23. My weekends were filled with weddings, whether as a guest or a bridesmaid or a guest-book keeper or every other job listed in the wedding books. The dresses I had moved from my dorm room were old, faded and out of style. And I was tired of feeling self-conscious at every wedding reception.
Even 20 years later, I can still vividly see the beautiful emerald color in my mind and the delicate lace around the hem. I remember how the silky fabric felt cool and glamorous on my tanned skin. I had never worn anything that expensive in my life. It clung to my youthful curves just enough to show off my body. And no matter what had happened in my life, I felt stunningly beautiful each time I slipped the dress over my head.
I wore the green dress for almost every one of the seemingly million weddings I went to for the next several years. High school friends, college friends, new work friends, my neighbor down the street. I dressed it up and down, winterized and summerized with scarves, jewelry and shoes that I borrowed and bought on clearance.
Those years were fun. Days of making ribbon bouquets on paper plates as my friends opened endless boxes of unfamiliar kitchen gadgets. Nights of nibbling on bite-sized crab cakes served from a tray and dancing to cheesy songs from the ’70s. Every so often I would secretly confess to my best friend late at night on the phone after drinking a few too many Bartles and Jaymes wine coolers that I felt like a kid wearing grown-up clothes as I attended work meetings during the day at the accounting firm and watched my friends say their vows on Saturday nights.
The weekend after my own wedding, I moved the green dress from the one-bedroom apartment I shared with my black Lab puppy to my new husband’s condo. I pulled my dress out a few times as a newlywed and loved not having to stand on the dance floor to catch the bouquet anymore. And the next year, I proudly hung my dress in the seemingly huge walk-in closet of our first home—a brand new three-bedroom transitional with plenty of windows to let in the sunshine. Life was good.
The babies came sooner than later. The days and months and years were a blur. I attended baby showers, hosted baby showers, and went to my own baby showers. The green dress hung unnoticed and unused behind maternity clothes and nursing shirts. I never bought a special baby shower outfit because my body seemed to change every other week, and it seemed pointless to spend money on something that would be puked on, pooped on or most likely both.
The babies turned into kids. And the green dress landed unceremoniously in the donation pile during a closet purge late one spring evening. I tried to pretend it was just a dress as I tossed it in the pile with fashion mistakes and other well-loved clothes. No matter how much I starved myself or sweated, I would never fit into that dress again. And I was OK with that fact. But I was sad that the dress simply didn’t fit my life anymore. I made my husband cart the plastic bags to the women’s shelter because I just didn’t have the heart to be the one to do the heartless deed to my beloved friend.
The funerals began with far less fanfare than the weddings and newborns. A friend from church’s mom died, and I sat in the back pew with a heavy heart because I realized for the first time that one day I would be sitting in my friend’s place. I watched my husband’s best friend of 35 years walk down the aisle of the church behind his mom’s casket with his 7-year-old son on his hip and his arm around his dad. And 100 people celebrated my father-in-law’s life at my house by dining on his favorite foods of fried chicken, ice cream and watermelon after he dropped dead of a heart attack while washing his truck in his driveway one early summer evening. The losses were raw and life-changing. And somewhere between helping with homework and washing soccer uniforms, I stopped looking for the grown-up in the room to tell me what to do and found my own voice.
The navy blue dress jumped off the page of the glossy catalog late one evening. I was bonding with a glass of red wine after a day of playing taxi to my kids. Yes, I had once (OK, many times) disparaged the store as an old ladies’ store and sworn that I would never shop there. But I had been increasingly drawn to their classic lines, fits and styles over the past few years. And this dress was simply stunning, in a classic sort of way. Well-made. Flattering for my now middle-aged body. Low enough cut to not be matronly, but still appropriate if I ran into the middle school principal.
“That is the perfect funeral dress,” I thought to myself. And then I immediately wondered if it was totally morbid to buy a funeral dress. After a heated debate in my own mind, I came to the unromantic conclusion that I would continue losing people whom I loved until the day of my own funeral. And I was tired of trying to piece together funeral-appropriate attire from my mainly vibrant-colored wardrobe while making travel plans and baking casseroles. While I had no illusions about clothes magically erasing grief, I knew from unfortunate experience that the right outfit actually does have the power to help you find the strength needed to get through the tough hours of life.
The dress was $112. It was a great deal. And it wasn’t black. Black was depressing to me, and I had finally realized that black made me look more tired than I was. But navy, navy I could do. A few days later it showed up unceremoniously on my front steps in a gray plastic package. I tucked it away behind the pile of backpacks and cleats in the hall closet so I could try it on without an audience.
When the house was asleep a few hours later, I slipped the dress over my head. And I honestly liked what I saw staring back in the mirror, which is rare these days. I felt beautiful. The dress was comfortable. And the person staring back at me looked like the person (albeit an older version) who I felt like on the inside. The dress was a keeper.
As I carefully hung it in the back of my walk-in closet, I tried not to picture the occasions in the future that the dress would take me to. Instead I made a silent wish that it would be a long time before I slipped it over my head again. I gently shut my closet door and headed for bed.
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