Her dress billowed around her bare feet. She breezed past the butcher shop and the pharmacy with a book hugged to her chest. Anna Harrison always had a book – and something to say. She smiled at the milkman, “A pleasant day to you and the cows, Mr. Hayes.” With a twinkling eye, he tipped his hat to her. She kneeled to greet little Emma, the locksmith’s five-year-old daughter. The two exchanged smiles and a few words, while Emma handed her a Black-eyed Susan. Anna tucked it behind her ear. She smoothed Emma’s tousled curls and continued on, crossing the street in my direction.
In that moment, I was grateful for the printing press. Its rhythmic chug swallowed the deafening thump of my heartbeat. Otherwise, she surely would have heard it.
I was suddenly aware of the dopey grin plastered across my face. It was growing larger by the minute. Sweltering day, ain’t it? What brings you into town today? Can I help you carry your things? Hello… Words swirled through my head, fighting to escape. But my lips were paralyzed, the words trapped inside as my imagination ran wild. I diverted my gaze as she walked past me. My chance had come and gone, again. I was too nervous to say a word.
My gaze shifted to her dress as she walked by. Red blossoms stuck out amidst swirls of green and blue, beautiful and full of life, like her. Everyone adored Anna. Perhaps it was the allure of her mint green eyes that promised to listen, beckoning the divulgence of one’s deepest thoughts. Or the exuberance in her greeting, tailored to each passerby, acquaintance and stranger alike. She was charismatic, but like the delicate greenery that wisped from one blossom to another, grace filled her every move, her every interaction.
Tiny buds dotted the ivory fabric; I wondered what color would splash from their tiny cocoon. Likewise, I couldn’t figure out what was hiding beneath her sunny surface; a spark ignited behind her eyes every time she reached town.
With one breath of her presence, she was no longer just a plain and simple girl wearing a plain and simple dress; her very nature tangled you up in its vine of sweet, soft petals.
And then the dress billowed out of my sight as Anna vanished into the clothier.
I picked up my bread bag and swung myself onto Charlie’s saddle. “Giddyup, boy,” I whispered, leaving behind on that bench all the words left unsaid for a girl I’d never met. Someday, I thought. Someday, I, Jack Montgomery, will have the courage.
::: 1954 :::
Bed springs squeaked as Edith plopped down, sighing loudly. She tapped her fingers together nervously, as she eyed the book on her nightstand. Big city lights adorned the cover. With a single glance, excitement pulsed through her veins. She could practically hear the hustle and bustle of the city that never sleeps. The thrill pushed aside any lingering doubt of the announcement she’d made an hour before.
Her finger traced the green stem on her dress, landing on a red bloom. The dress had been her grandmother’s. It was a confidence booster, she’d tell Edith. “When you feel good about the way you look, sunshine radiates out of your every pore.”
Her grandmother, Anna, grew up a poor farm girl. “Our feet padded dirt floors. Winters were cold and blankets didn’t have much to them. We packed together like sardines on those nights. We clung to one another’s body heat, my three sisters and two brothers and me. Sometimes it was so cold we could see our breath.
“So we made up a game. Our frosty exhales shaped themselves into stories. Susan’s puff claimed the shape of a rabbit, which hopped into Mary’s forest. My brother John puffed out a wolf that lurked behind the trees, awaiting his next meal. Of course, if left to my brothers, that sweet bunny wouldn’t be seeing the next day’s sunlight. As it scampered for dear life across the crunchy leaves, my exhale produced a canoe, waiting at the water’s edge to carry the rabbit to safety. And happily ever after it hopped.”
That was her grandmother, a soft-hearted storyteller, wise and weathered: a result of being the oldest of six, motherless children.
“My mother died from tuberculosis when I was eleven. My sisters and I kept the house running,” her grandmother would explain. “When we weren’t in school or working at the furniture factory, we planted, tended and harvested the garden. We took turns cooking meals. The filthy dust needed to be wiped down and the rugs shook out twice a day. We hauled water nearly a mile to the house daily. On Monday, my sister Alice did the washing. On Tuesday, Mary ironed, while I mended socks or pants or shirts.
“Since I was the oldest, I got to take trips into town every Wednesday. I stole these precious moments by myself to read the books and newspapers that Mrs. Hayes, my schoolteacher, gave me. I loved getting lost in those stories, imagining the characters as my friends or my mother. Women had sewing machines and beautiful shoes. They wore layers of elaborate clothing topped with fancy gowns. Not a hair of the coiffed pile atop their heads was out of place.
“Some women even went to college to be doctors. They weren’t stifled by the monotony of domesticity. They learned about the world right alongside men. I wanted, more than anything, to leave my sleepy little town and learn about that world, too. I wanted to study philosophy and science and the Far East. But my father couldn’t afford to send me anywhere except to a husband.”
Edith loved her grandmother’s stories; she often imagined herself living in 1895, wondering whether she would have had the same interests or made the same decisions. Her fingers moved from the red bloom to the tiny black buds. Stark, black lines broke up the gentle petals held together by the winding greenery. The dress embodied a quiet strength for Edith, a determination discovered through her grandmother’s tales of treks beyond the countryside.
“I horded pennies here and there when the clerk returned the change from my shopping list expenditures. I fell in love with the brilliance of so many fabrics during my visits to the clothier,” she told me when I found the dress hiding in the back of her closet. “It felt like forever, but one day I finally had enough money to buy something beautiful from Sears. It was a new mail-order catalogue back then. Walking past the peanut brittle in the grocery store window had been tempting, but I held tight to my pennies. The dress wasn’t much, only a challis, but wearing something more than the rags I’d stitched together myself was a dream come true. In a sense, it brought me closer to those women in the big city.
“The day it arrived, I slipped it on and instantly felt like I could be anything – maybe even a doctor. I only wore this dress after I had washed up. There was no way I was going to mussy up my pride and joy by letting that fabric touch the perpetual film of dirt that layered my skin. I started bathing on Wednesdays, before I went into town. And I didn’t wear it much, hoping it’d last forever.”
Fifty years later, Anna had given her granddaughter the dress. Edith slipped it on for those occasions that required an extra bit of poise. She wore it on her first date with Gregory. She wore it on her first day of college. She wore it tonight on her last date with Gregory. She planned to wear it for her first job interview in New York City.
Not only had Edith acquired Anna’s dress, she inherited her wanderlust, too. Her grandmother’s stories of making it to the big city were vivid in Edith’s imagination. Anna’s dream never came true; perhaps a bit of Edith’s determination to be on stage was for her grandmother. She imagined writing letters to Anna, spinning tales of life on the sidewalks of New York, the people she’d meet, women who resembled Vogue cover models, men in expensive suits who would sweep her off her feet while she rose to stardom under the bright city lights. She’d confirm everything Anna had ever imagined and more about life in the city.
Leaving Gregory tonight tore a hole in her heart, but she couldn’t imagine life as a farmer’s wife. She had grown up on the farm her grandparents owned, chasing chickens, tending the land, milking the cows. She longed for something she couldn’t find here. She needed the soul of that city she’d been dreaming about since she was eight-years old. Her suitcases were packed. She’d been saving her pennies, just like Anna had. At twilight tomorrow, she’d board a train to Manhattan, saying goodbye to this town that kept her going nowhere.
::: 2012 :::
A soft floral print caught Erin’s eye. Pushing aside the other clothes, she pulled the dress from the rack. Her heart raced as she took in every detail. Wispy, green leaves stemmed from one splotch of red petals to those of a delicate blue. The blooms spilled across the silky ivory fabric. Erin draped the double waistband over her hands. It anchored a pleated bodice that curved into the smock of its neckline. A find like this was rare. And since Erin indulged in only two things, flowers and vintage dresses, the discovery was thrilling; she felt like a six-year old on Christmas morning. She imagined the woman who originally wore this dress. That’s what Erin loved about vintage clothing; they came drenched with stories of lives lived long ago.
Erin had been perusing the antique store in attempts to take her mind off her sudden sorrow. It had been months since the break up, but the memory of Jack was suddenly tormenting every strand of rationality. Their split had been sensible and relatively painless. They just couldn’t be; that was all there was to it. She was simply thankful for what she’d gained.
Stumbling upon a story of a haunted house, however, sent her spiraling into sadness. No one else would have appreciated the ghostly tale; it was a fascination they discovered together. A day later, she received an email from him; it was signed with a word from the secret language they’d made up during a road trip out West. Memories of their whirlwind romance hung heavily in her chest. Tears burned her cheeks for the first time since they parted ways. She was suddenly aware of the suffocating silence that accompanied losing her best friend.
Forgetting him for a moment, Erin pulled the fitting room curtain closed and quickly undressed. She slid into the dress, tugged the zipper and turned around to face the mirror. Despite it’s fragile appearance, the dress was comfortable and strong. She sighed happily. Everything about it was perfect. Clothing was an extension of not only Erin’s personality, but her spirit, too. She knew feeling lovely in what she wore would spark an instant mood boost. And when she felt good about herself, others noticed, too, it seemed. Whether it was a compliment or a reciprocated smile, the good piled on, to the point where she felt capable of anything. Her confidence soared, and it all started with a simple piece of fabric.
She smoothed the dress across her hips and her finger caught an opening. Erin swooned. A hidden pocket! She slipped her hand inside and felt a piece of paper. Yellowed with age, she unfolded it to discover the delicate swirl of letters:
I’ve come to realize the beauty of my plain and simple life on the farm. I wanted so badly to get out of there, to make a life for myself, to discover this life I could only read about. Now that I’ve been in New York for a year, I know the stories are fantasy – or simply the stories of the wealthy. Life isn’t easy. It’s hard to keep a job in this business. Just as quickly as I get one, it’s over. There’s no promise of a next job.
Fortunately, my customers at the restaurant keep me going. I daydream about what their lives are like, fabricating a story for each one. Who are they? Where do they come from? Why are they dining at this smoky little bar? It’s a fun game of pretend I play to pass the time. But I’m on my second strike right now and am worried I’ll lose my job. I’ve missed work because of auditions. Since I came to New York to be an actress, I can’t help but think, what if missing that audition was my one shot at finally making it?
My friends aren’t here, Grandmother. It’s hard to trust anyone. Everyone in my circle wants one thing; they want to make it big. You quickly learn that someone is always in your way, and you’re always in someone else’s way. You and grandfather aren’t here, my family isn’t here, Gregory isn’t here. The men I meet are intoxicating, oozing with charm and power (or so they imply), but they’re nothing like Gregory. Gregory made me laugh, he was always a calm amidst my storm. When I was with him, I felt like the luckiest girl in the world. I believed no one else could ever come close to the happiness we found together. He was, and still is, the only man I see myself growing old and gray with, playing Scrabble on our front porch while grandkids skip rope in our driveway.
What I’m trying to say, Grandmother, is I get it now. I understand why you chose to stay on the farm. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. A part of me wanted to move to New York for you, because you never got to fulfill your dream. But I see now that dreams can change, and yours evolved into a life with Jack Montgomery, the man who swept you off your feet. I guess I learned the hard way, Gram. Your stories were meant to teach, but it took leaving and living for me to learn you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. Leaving Grand Rapids was a mistake; I’m moving back as soon as I can save enough money for a train ticket home. I’ll write you soon.
P.S. For what it’s worth, you’re too gentle for the stony characters you would have encountered here. You’re suited well for the rolling hills and endless trees in Michigan.
Leaving the dress on, Erin stuffed her shorts and t-shirt into her purse. She ripped the sales tag off, handing it and a wad of money to the cashier before hurrying outside.
Mesmerized by the story she’d found tucked in the dress and jarred by the name of Edith’s grandfather, Erin couldn’t help but wonder, “What if my Jack is an Edith? What if I’m an Edith? Are we testing whether the grass is greener elsewhere?” Shaking her head, compelled by her few-days lapse in clarity, she plopped down on a street-side bench next to a pot of Black-eyed Susans. Pulling out pen and paper, she eyed the yellow flowers as she contemplated her next move. Scribbling furiously, Erin responded to the email she’d received from him yesterday. She knew what she had to say.
When you say you want to take a walk, does that mean you’ve decided to overlook the thorn in our relationship? Because I know a thing or two about you, Jack. The words that fall from your lips are pretty; they’re poetic. To be on the receiving end, the only one on that end, was magical. Your words are drenched with beauty and depth; second-guessing their truthfulness would have been absurd. Something about plain-and-simple me inspired you to say these lovely things. But in hindsight, your words are ornamental, a pretty package; that’s all. They’re nothing more than a process – your process – that weaves the truth into an indecipherable web. Trying to find the sense is suffocating. So, no, I can’t go for a walk with you. And, Jack, I hope you’ll understand when I say perfection is unattainable. There’s beauty in the mystery and simplicity of the words left unsaid.
Outfitted for courage, Erin placed her words left unsaid on Jack’s doorstep.
Who could that be? I thought as I heard the doorbell chime. I pulled my front door open but saw no one. A striped carnation attached to an envelope lay on the ground. My heart sunk. It had to be from Erin, my flower girl. I looked up, scanning the sidewalk. There she was. The drone of the passing cars put her out of earshot.
My gaze shifted to her dress. It was one I’d never seen before. Red blossoms stuck out amidst swirls of green and blue, beautiful and full of life, like her. From the moment I met her, I was captivated by her tenacity. But she had gentle eyes: eyes that compelled me to spill my inner most secrets. I traced the hard black lines that broke up the delicate petals, ending as buds waiting to explode; what color would they be? Memories of what we’d been flooded my senses, but it was getting tangled deep within each other’s colors that had broken us.
I shut the door and rolled the striped carnation between my fingers. She loved flowers. Erin liked games, too. She liked mystery and the play of words. What secret language did this flower hold? I flicked on my computer screen to ask Google.
I smiled at her wit, her style, her game, her truth, but my heart shattered to a million pieces as I read the answer to my question.
“I love you, but I can’t be with you.”
Reeling with emotion triggered by the message of a flower, I realized those tiny black buds of the new dress were her, too: a thorny surprise.
Erin’s peace drew closer with each step that carried her further from his porch. Someday their existence together would be nothing more than a fleeting memory.
The story took multiple twists and turns as I continued to learn more about the dress I fell in love with when I wandered the museum archives. Initially, I thought my character would be the girl-next-door type from the 1950s, only to discover the dress was from the 1890s. But this beautiful, detailed fabric just didn’t make sense for that era. It was improper for women to bare their ankles back then and this dress would likely sit knee-length on me. After an enlightening discussion with my step-sister versed in fashion history, it turns out my character is running around town in her undergarments. Oops.
Kara is a self-proclaimed house-hunting pro and one of Grand Rapids’ biggest fans. She blogs about both at grandrapidsstoryteller.wordpress.com. In addition to writing and working as a communications specialist, Kara is a music explorer, craft brew lover, dance addict and real-food advocate.