It's a cute dress and all, but why this? To explain why I couldn't let this go, I have to explain how I got it.
My mom loves Christmas. Mostly she loves giving gifts. When I was a kid she would give me gifts at every available opportunity, not just Christmas but Easter, valentines day, and plenty of random times when she was at the thrift store and saw something I just *had* to have (she actually still does that, she just leaves it in my room at my parent's house until I visit.) Every Christmas was an orgy of presents, most of which were from my mom, a fact that she cleverly disguised by putting different names on the tags. Every year I would get presents from Santa, the elves from Elf Quest, the squirrels that lived on our block, the family cat, Mulder and Scully, you get the picture. I believed in Santa much longer than I should have. When I was 10 I got into a fight with a kid at school because I insisted that Santa was real. He had to exist. There was no way my parents could afford to buy me that much stuff every year.
I now know that my parents could afford that many gifts because my mom got most of them at thrift stores, or cheap stores like target, or she made them. Her job as a costumer meant that she spent a lot of time shopping, and she could sew like nobody's business. My Dad's video store meant that she could get me videos at wholesale prices. And I was the kind of kid who wanted videos and books and clothes and toys from Target. I didn't play videogames and I usually didn't care about the Hot Toy of The Year. So I was pretty easy to shop for. Especially if you were my mom and you LOVED buying and making things for other people.
I don't remember how old I was when I stopped believing in Santa but I do remember the year when I knew that Santa was my mom. I was 14 and my family had had a rough couple of years. My dad had sold both her businesses (out of necessity) and was unemployed for a while. I had been failing at the public school and my parents had put me into a private school, which I'm pretty sure saved my life, but it wasn't great for our finances. We'd moved out of an ungodly money pit of a house, on which I think we still owed back rent. My parents had racked up a good amount of debit and someone (I can't remember who) had started garnishing her wages.
I was an oblivious teen, so I knew this was happing but I didn't really *get* it. I'd heard my mom talking about someone garnishing her salary but didn't quite know what it meant. I knew that our house had stuff wrong with it all the time and that we had moved very quickly and suddenly to a much smaller house. I knew I had to get a certain level of grades or my scholarship wouldn't continue. I knew I had to write thank you notes to my grandparents when they started to help with my tuition. I knew my dad didn't have a job, and I knew that was bad. But somehow, for the most part, that didn't *land* with me. I had teenage stuff to think about. It was more immediate and it loomed large in my mind. Like most teens, school and friends and boys were the foreground in my life, everything else was background.
And I think my parents worked very hard to keep it that way. They wanted me to be happy. It's just hard not to feel like my happiness came at the expense of theirs. Not that their lives would have been so much better if they'd had a daughter racked with worry and guilt on top of all the other crap they were dealing with. But I feel terrible that I spent so much time thinking about myself when everything else was falling down around our ears.
But then Christmas morning came and there were definitely fewer presents under the tree. I was aware enough to expect as much, and my mom did her best, but the difference was noticeable. That didn't really bother me. It was a sparser Christmas than normal, so what? We had good food, we enjoyed opening the gifts that we did have, we had a great time being together. What stuck in my head was when my opened gifts were all laid out together. I'd gotten mostly clothes, which I was thrilled about. But as I looked at them all, I recognized the fabrics they were made from. They'd each been in a show she worked on this year; this gold satin was from Cherry Orchard, this green silk and blue chiffon were from The Tempest. She'd made them from scraps.
I thought about the work my mom had put into making them; choosing dresses that were small enough to make out of leftover fabric, staying late at work, carefully laying out pattern pieces, eking out the last little bits she could from the fabric she had. That was when I realized how bad things were. And that was when I realized how much my mother loved me, and how hard she worked just to keep me happy. I was oblivious because she let me be, because she wanted me to be.
I never thought of myself as sheltered. From the time I was in second or third grade, she let me walk home from school. I learned some cooking lessons the hard way while trying to make after school snacks. My mom never grilled me about what I was doing or where I was going with my friends. She let me choose the books I read and the movies I watched. When I was 17 and started to date someone older, she rather stridently disagreed with that decision, but she never forbade me from making it.
But when she saw that the school I was in was crushing my spirit, she did everything she could to protect me. She talked to teachers (who didn't care) she talked to a psychiatrist (who diagnosed me with ADD and recommended a different school) and she talked to my grandparents (who didn't really understand the problem or why private school would take priority over the other stuff going on with us.) And when all the world seemed to be crashing in on our family, she shielded me from the worst of it. She paid my tuition, no matter what. She worked her fingers to the bone to make sure our Christmas still happened. She made herself drive a minimum of three hours a day, just to go to work.
One of the dresses she made me that year is still at my parent's house. The Tempest dress was ruined in a tragic laundry accident in 2003. This gold dress was the only one I had left. But I never wear it anymore. When I was in high school, it was short enough to get me sent home from school and I've grown since then. I haven't worn it in years, it was just sitting in my closet, it was time to let it go and let someone smaller than me enjoy it. I went through all of those rationalizations, but Christmas kept running through my head. I thought I'd just take a picture of it, maybe post about it, it didn't matter that I wasn't a very good photographer, it was more about the thought than the photo. So I took this crappy photo and I went to pick it up and I. Just. Lost it.
I didn't just cry. I broke. In one week, I'd lost David Bowie and Allan Rickman, my grandmother was probably going to die any minute, I was letting go of garments that reminded me of high school, stupid mistakes, accidents that I still blamed myself for, lost jobs, lost boyfriends, lost friendships, and I just couldn't lose this too. I hated myself for crying about *this*. I'd cried about all the other stuff, too, but not this big, stupid, embarrassing flood of wailing, broken, sobs. That should have been reserved for the grandmother I was never close enough to, or the rock icon I'd actually come to think of as some kind of immortal demi-god. I shouldn't be crying over some dress, even if it was a dress that had become a symbol how much my mother loved me. But I was. I couldn't stop it. And after at least 20 minutes of ugly crying in my hallway and thanking god that my poor boyfriend wasn't there to witness it, I decided that I had to keep going. My bed was still covered in dresses, and I had to get through them before I could sleep. Preferably before my boyfriend got home to witness dressmageddon first hand.
So I picked up the dress, and I hung it on a wall, neither in the keep pile or the throw away pile, just sitting there, waiting for me to make a decision. And then I did. As I worked, I got an idea. An image of the dress, with a pattern of gold studs around the hem, an immaculate heart in the center of the chest. I don't know what the act will be, but I'm looking forward to making it. My ex used to call burlesque costuming the foreign legion of clothing. The statement sounded so good I never asked him to explain it. But in this case it feels more like a reliquary, making sacred art from something you should bury, because it's too precious to let go.