this dress, from her, via you, to me

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.”

photo 2

* 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. 

misty water-coloured memories

Last year I read an amazing book by Stephen King called ‘On Writing’. For anyone who fancies themselves as a bit of a wordsmith, this is SUCH a good read. One of the tasks he sets is to scribble out a list – without really thinking – of your memories. Obvy not ALL of them, because that would be a totally massive mammoth type-fest, but to write down whatever memories pop into your brain. It’s a really interesting task and is a good way to flesh out the bare bones of ideas into stories.

Digging around in my incredibly well-organised desktop filing system (that’s a funny joke – HAHA), I came across my initial musings:

Technically my first day of prep, but still packs the same punch, no?

Technically my first day of prep, but still packs the same punch, no?

I remember the first day of Grade One at primary school. A girl in my class was crying beside one of the classrooms because her older sister Eve had been stung by a bee. I sat with her and told her it would be OK. Her name was Prue, and that was the day I met my first bestie.

I remember running laps around the school. I HATED any kind of sports when I was a kid – I struggled to keep up with the rest of my class. I remember being lapped by the other kids as I plodded slowly along… As I turned a corner from the basketball court around the front of the school, I ran into three older boys (I think they were in Grade 5 or Grade 6 – I would have been in Grade 2 or 3); they were the ‘tough’ guys, I’d seen them bullying other kids and I’d managed (for the most part) to avoid them. But as I rounded the corner, I accidentally made eye contact with one of them. I quickly looked away, but as I ran off, one of them yelled out “Who were you looking at??” and I called back “No one…” and he yelled “No one? You were looking at one of us. Who was it??” and I called back “I don’t know. All of you”. I remember feeling completely ashamed and terrified, because it had been a glance, in a ‘there are the bullies’ kinda scared way, and they’d made me feel like it was a ‘crush/love’ glance.

Not long after that, I remember walking home from school one day, and one of the afore-mentioned bullies came up behind me and started tapping a stick on the top of my backpack. “Makes a good drum, that” he leered, and I stuck my tongue out at him, not thinking. He pushed me up against a fence by my throat, and held me there. I can’t remember what he said.

I remember the heat on my neck under my scarf as I rode my bike to North Melbourne this morning. Today is cool, especially after the heat of the past few days, so I think I was being ambitious wearing a neckscarf on a bike ride in the sun. The silk kept the heat in, and when I arrived at the Red Cross for my volunteering shift, I felt warm and sweaty and out of breath [DISCLAIMER: this was not written today, but last year. But if I was wearing a neckscarf today and rode my bike somewhere, I think I would have written a similar post]

I remember how fast I rode my bike home the day I spotted Gus on the Lost Dogs Home website, and how frantic I felt when Rich didn’t respond to my text/email/call about our perfect dog being up for grabs. We got him though. Obvy.

I remember the slug on our back verandah the night of my mum’s funeral. And that my dad and I sat and watched as it slithered along a wooden paling, while we had a house full of people inside.

I remember my first day of work at my first ever job. It was a Saturday and I had scored the role of hair-sweep-er-up-er at the hairdressers. I agonised over what to wear, and how to do my own hair. I remember, just before I left home, spitting toothpaste into my hair as I brushed my teeth.

I remember a group of us standing beneath an air vent at work as smoke poured out of it, wondering aloud “Should we call the fire brigade?”. We did. I was told to get everyone out of the building (I was the fire marshall at my work, and for the first and only time in my fire marshalling career, I got to wear my safety helmet and blow my whistle). Three firetrucks screamed around the corner into Wellington Street, burly firefighters pouring out, running into the building with pick axes and hoses. Turns out the building wasn’t on fire. A belt in the air conditioning had snapped. That was the day I discovered my penchant for a man in uniform.

IMG_0381

This pic reminds me of the time I had a snake coiled around my neck in Morocco. You can literally see the excited fear in my eyes.

Which leads me to remember the day I met Sgt Joshua (aka Drazic from Heartbreak High, aka Callan Mulvey) from Rush – they were filming an episode right near my work, and a good friend  was the on-set nurse. I remember how hot my face got as she pushed me towards him to take a picture, and how tightly I gripped my coffee cup, and how giddy I felt. See? Men in uniform. Even a fake uniform.

I remember driving to Wye River with Imogen on a Friday evening a few years ago. I sat in the front with Gus at my feet; Rich sat in the back with Peppa the whippet. Peppa struggled on some of the curly roads, and was sick all over Rich’s lap (I still break into the giggles when I think about this: Rich saying “Umm, guys?” as we drove around a bend). I remember Rich only brought one pair of pants. Problematic. I remember the sky was clear when we left Melbourne, but darkened the closer we got to the coast. On our way through Lorne, I remember the rain starting to fall, and the gray of the sky. It was the perfect evening for red wine and stew and long talks about life.

I remember meeting a boy on the first anniversary of my Mum’s death, at a festival in Woodford. I thought I was SO cool and SO alternative and I met him in the Chai Tent (which I thought was the most incredibly bohemian place ever) and confiding in him that it was Mum’s anniversary, and him saying “Well, it’s been a year. You’d be over it by now, yeah?”. No.

I remember the taste of the white pinot noir (yes, white!) I had with lunch, with a very excellent friend, at a very excellent restaurant in Gertrude Street. The wine was good, the food was great, the company was THE BEST.

You should give it a go. Unleash the writing-remembering beast! You can keep going with it forever, or focus on certain years or ages or experiences. Let me know in the comments if you do – I’d love to read it.