I was pretty little when I went to my first funeral. My mom worked full time when I was in half-day kindergarten, so a babysitter stayed with me when I wasn’t in school. One morning she got me ready to attend a funeral with her. I have no idea how we got there (probably walked), or the location of the church, but I do remember the occasion itself.
I must have asked her to explain to me what a funeral was when she told me where we were going; I remember being very confused by this notion that one day a person could be here, and then the next, they could be gone. I kept trying to wrap my little mind around it, but the concept just didn’t fit this five-year-old’s construct. It puzzled me throughout the rest of the day (and then some).
I also remember thinking, after we got to the church, that the hushed tones all the big people were using seemed rather peculiar. I don’t recall that anybody at the church addressed me personally, so I was off the hook: didn’t have to worry about finding the appropriate quiet-as-a-church-mouse voice. I didn’t mind being ignored either, since I didn’t know a soul — and that included the woman in the “pine box” up front. Furthermore, from my point of view, the ceremony was much too long. Just a whole lot of talking about things that didn’t make any sense at all.
But the occasion wasn’t a complete bust, no. It had serendipitously provided yet another opportunity to get dressed up and go out. To say that I enjoyed the fancy dresses my mom would sew for me, or occasionally purchase, would be an understatement. I could count on getting something new and special about twice a year – in time for holidays. Why is it that I can’t remember my doctor appointments or the name of the author of that book I just read, but I can vividly remember the details of many of those dresses from more than fifty years ago? Perhaps it had something to do with my mom making it all seem so wonderful by putting thought not just into the dresses themselves, but also into the accessories: this little purse, those fancy anklets, a pair of little white gloves, a pendant, a sash. Always color coordinated, always an ensemble.
I remember one evening, standing in the hallway outside my kindergarten classroom with my classmates and our teacher, waiting for the signal to file into the auditorium to perform our holiday selections. I was wearing a dusty cornflower blue faux shantung number with a full round collar, short puffed sleeves and a dirndl skirt. It had a one-inch navy velvet ribbon sash around the waist and a vertical row of navy buttons down the middle front of the collar. Not only had my mom curled and styled my hair, but she had also manicured my nails with a coat of clear polish. Oh yes, I was really stepping out on the town that evening. (Suppose my mom just might have enjoyed having a little girl whose strings resonated to her tunes?…)
It wouldn’t be too many more years before I would be making my own dresses, since Mom took the time to teach me how to sew. From about age eleven, I made many of my own garments, and from there I just kept right on going. I would have to say the high point was making the dress I got married in, as well those my attendants wore.
These days, I don’t sew nearly as much. It seems like ready-to-wear garments are priced close enough to the cost of yard goods + notions to make the time spent sewing clothes not an especially compelling equation, especially if one watches sales on ready-to-wear. In addition, the quality and selection of yard goods has diminished, in my opinion, as the percentage of people who sew their own garments has declined. Alas.
But I did take time out to make a special outfit a few years ago. My dad’s health had been failing for a while. One day a little voice in my head said I wouldn’t have much more time to enjoy his presence in this life; I needed to savor every moment. Another thought followed: I needed suitable garments to wear to the ceremony that would commemorate his having been here one day, and gone the next. So I set about ensuring I would have such garments.
The process was unhurried, allowing me to take care in selecting the fabric, in designing the lines of the suit, and in meticulously assembling the three pieces. Not since the wedding attire I had sewn thirty-five years years earlier had any sewing project come close to commanding so much attention. It was as if I had a dressmaking class project that I had to get an “A+” on. As the construction phase neared completion, in the spirit of my mom’s earlier focus on just-right accessories, I searched for beads to accent the neckline, earrings to match the beads, and shoes that finished off the look. I totally lifted a page out of her playbook.
This time around, the concept of someone being there one day and not there the next would no longer be a puzzlement; it would just bring an ache. This time, the people surrounding me wouldn’t be strangers; they would be loved ones to share the ache. And this time, the person in the box up front would be no stranger; he would be someone I knew so, so well. And this time, dressing up in the ensemble — made especially for the occasion — would actually bring comfort and help me commemorate my dad and celebrate just how special he was to me.