It was strange to see my usually cool, calm and collected older cousin so flustered, faffing about with cutlery and salad and setting down plates for dinner. I remembered her being so poised and graceful when I was a kid, but I could see her becoming more and more like her mum, and mine. A family trait, I guess.
We’d just started to eat when an alarm went off on her phone. “I set alarms for everything”, she exclaimed, opening her phone, to the groans of her husband and sons. “What’s this one for? O, it’s telling me not to forget to show you something. I’ll get it after dinner.”
I was intrigued.
The boys ate loudly, bickering amongst themselves, subconsciously offending their mum about the too-spicy chicken and the rubber-like prawns. I had another sip of red wine.
After dinner, the boys cleared the table and Celia and I sat down to talk. How long has it been?, we wondered aloud. Four years? Six? The last time I was here was for Tasman’s birthday and we made a cake shaped like a blue-tongue lizard.
“I have to show you the thing!” Celia cried, jumping up from the couch and disappearing into the front of the house. She returned with a black dress and jacket, draped over her arm on a wire coat-hanger.
“This. My mum made it for your mum, isn’t it beautiful?”
Anything that connects me to my mum is beautiful. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a handmade dress or an old diary or the hand-written note under the lid of the piano at Dad’s house. Knowing that it’s something she’s touched or written or been enclosed in, it always takes my breathe away. It’s why I’ve never been able to get rid of the old writer’s festival t-shirt she died in, 18 years ago. Rich once pulled it out of the drawer, with a ‘WHAT’S THIS??’ and I’ve never felt so protective of anything in my life. I snatched it off him and placed it – folded it – back into the drawer. “It’s nothing, it’s Mum’s, it doesn’t matter.”
I touched the sleeve of the jacket, not sure if Celia was showing it to me simply to show me, or if she was giving it to me. It should have been mine, but you can’t be presumptuous when it comes to family, and history, and handmade dresses, from one sister to another.
“Mum gave it to me years ago, and I’ve worn it a few times, but it’s never quite fit. I feel like the length is all wrong on me. I find the wool really itchy and it’s a bit tight across the front and cuts in a bit, here,” she pinched the tanned wedge of skin at her armpit. “Try it on.”
There’s something not quite right about trying on a woollen cocktail dress and jacket in the middle of a Perth summer, but I would have tried on a diving suit and helmet, if I knew mum had been in it.
The zip was sticky, the lining frayed and the fabric slightly moth-eaten. “It’ll need a bit of mending…” Celia said, as I wriggled myself in, pulling the lining and the dress over my hips. I zipped up the back. Manoeuvring myself into the jacket, I was careful not to push my arm through the tear in the lining. But once it was on, it was as if my dear Aunt Heather had made the dress for me. Mum and I have the same body.
Celia stepped back. I looked down and smoothed down the fabric over my front.
“It fits. It’s not too tight. It doesn’t cut. It’s not itchy. It’s beautiful.”
My aunt had made it for my mum in the 1960s, from a Christian Dior pattern. It’s a sleeveless dress, with a woven trim around the neck and a pleated detail at the waist. It sits just below my knees – where it would have sat on mum. The jacket is cropped, with three-quarter-length sleeves, three woven buttons and a wide collar. I could almost see mum wearing it, with court shoes and nude stockings and a patent leather handbag. Her short curly hair would have been tamed with a few bobby pins.
“You should have it,” Celia said, “You’ll get way more wear out of it than I will.”
We spent the rest of the evening drinking tea, eating shortbread, and talking about our kids and our parents and life. Books and TV shows and movies and pets. How hard it can be to motivate teenaged kids and how tough it can be when you see them wearing too much fake tan and having to keep it to yourself.
Before I went to bed that night, in the stuffy spare room at the back of the house, I carefully packed the dress and jacket into my suitcase. Folding it between skirts and t-shirts so it wouldn’t get creased. Wondering when, and where, I would wear it. Would I tell people its story, who made it and who it belonged to and where it had been for all these years? Or would I wait for someone to comment on ‘that beautiful dress’.
When I got back to Melbourne, I had breakfast with my dad at a busy café on Rathdowne Street. When I mentioned the dress, his eyes filled with tears, and he clasped his hand over his mouth. “Yes, yes, of course I remember that dress. Mum wore it the very first time we went out together.”
* First little footnote: Try as I might, I can’t get a good photo of this outfit. Being black, like my black dog Gus, it’s SO hard to get a snap that does it justice. Gus is super cute, the dress is super beautiful, but it just doesn’t come across… But! I’m working on it. Watch this space.
** Second little footnote: I wrote this piece today at a writing class with Catherine Deveny. It’s something I’ve been wanting to get down since receiving the dress, but I’m excellent at putting things off. At the end of the class, when Catherine asked if anyone wanted to read what they’d worked on throughout the day, I put my hand up and said “I think I want to read this”. Good one, Wembolina. Why the hell did I think reading this OUT LOUD in front of a room full of writers would be a good idea?? As soon as I started, my voice started to waver, my cheek started twitching, and my heart actually repositioned itself in my throat. Yes. But… with a red-hot face and shaking hands, I got through it.