This wedding dress

My sister brings Dad over for dinner.  She is exhausted from clearing out his old flat.  She is carrying a large cardboard box that has ‘Paid: £4.99’ scribbled on the lid.

“I thought you’d like this,” she says. I open it straight away, still in the hall.

It’s Mum’s wedding dress. It’s creamy white, beautiful. I had no idea it was still around. I gently peel the tissue wrapping away. I feel like I am nursing a sick bird and I’m frightened I will break its wings. I unfold the dress and hold it up. Dad says, “Brings tears to my eyes that does.” Mini shouts, “I love you, mummy,” as she shoots past on the way to Scooby Doo on telly.

I never dreamed about dresses or weddings. I was a jeans and tank top girl with a homemade fringe. and every time a Wedding Invitation appeared on the mat I would groan. Weddings were places to be kissed by old ladies with moustaches or to eat salty food stuff I didn’t know the name of. But family parties were always like that, and I enjoyed them well enough. My ambivalence about weddings ran deeper. Even when I was only seven or eight, I couldn’t understand the big deal.  I loved my cousins and my babysitters, or whoever the bride was, but on their wedding day, they seemed to shrink in front of me. I would look at the groom and puzzle: why on earth was she marrying this one? Afterwards, the brides said it was the happiest day of their lives, but I was never convinced. I mean, if it were, would they really need to say it?

But this, this is a different wedding, a different dress.

It is long, so long, I have to hold it high over my head to get the full sense of it. Mum was much taller than me, and there is a train too. I am amazed it fitted in this box. It is made from a heavy cotton. I think it’s nothing like my wedding dress was but in some ways it is: It’s a dress that holds together two contradictory states perfectly: don’t look at me, but also, oh but if you must, you will see, I am, umm, classic and elegant?

Mum and Dad married early in 1963. So, after the Cuban Missile Crisis – The world came close to annihilation – wouldn’t that weaken your defences? and before JFK was shot. Mum was four months pregnant with my sister at the time. The families didn’t know, or at least, no one admitted they knew. The dress played an important part in the concealment. I know the facts about the day – The Cumberland Suite, chicken and potatoes – but I don’t know Mum’s feelings. I don’t know the answers to the questions: Were you in love? What kind of marriage was it? Did you have to fold yourself into something small to fit?

I take the box upstairs and put it under my bed. I wonder when I will take it out again. I find it hard to look at. It is one of the few things of Mum that we have left.

It seems hard to imagine that if it weren’t for her in that dress, that day, everything would be different.

Husband comes up and asks if I’m ok. I feel as though I am expected to say this, rather than actually feeling it, but I go: “Maybe my nieces or Mini will wear this one day.” I can’t imagine.

“Or Ray or Arnie?”

It is his little joke. Ha, I say and we go downstairs and have dinner.