The Story of a Little Black Dress
I grew up in what would probably have been considered (at the time) a fairly ‘middle class’ family. That is not to say we enjoyed a truly ‘middle class’ lifestyle, but we rarely went without life’s essentials.
My parents were married in 1939. My mother worked for the first few years, then stayed home (as women generally did in those days) to raise the five children of the marriage (a boy and girl born in 1942 and 1944; two girls born much later – in 1951 and 1953; a boy who arrived rather ‘unexpectedly’ in 1958; we were a rather disparate lot). For many years, she also dealt with the trials and tribulations of having both grandmothers living ‘upstairs’ (my father had converted our three storey house into three separate apartments and the grandmothers lived in the two upstairs units); one of the main reasons we moved in 1963 (four blocks up the street, to a neat little three-bedroom bungalow) was so Mom could have some ‘space’ for herself (one grandmother went into long term care around the same time; the other moved to a senior’s apartment complex a few years later).
My father never had what would be called a ‘regular’ job – he worked at whatever trade or career suited him at any one time. For years he managed a downtown service station (with his best friend, Terry McD); he sold parking meters (and other transportation-related miscellany) across Canada; he owned and operated a house numbering company (he designed and implemented house numbering systems in our home town as well as in places as far flung as Caracas, Venezuela and various cities in between); he studied with and then coordinated and taught courses for the Henry George School of Social Science; he spent a couple of years working as an economist in downtown Toronto (for a company whose name I cannot recall); and – most famously – he was elected as a town (and later regional) councillor and ‘defender of the little guy’, a post he held (through multiple elections) until his retirement at 65.
Because my mother didn’t work, and my father’s income was sporadic (as is the nature of sales, self, and part-time employment), money was managed meticulously. By the time the household bills were paid (on time and in full – a ‘life lesson’ I learned early and still practice) and necessities like groceries and medications, etc. were purchased, there wasn’t a lot left over for ‘frills’. My sisters and I generally wore homemade outfits (my mother was a very good seamstress; she taught us how to make our own clothes when were about twelve) or hand-me-downs (or handmade hand-me-downs). For Christmas, we were allowed to ask Santa Claus for ONE THING (a custom I followed with my own boys); there were other items (socks, underwear, an orange) in our stockings and perhaps an additional toy or two under the tree (from my parents) but we certainly didn’t ‘go overboard’ at Christmastime in our house. We never went on family vacations – although my father did rent a cottage for four summers as an ‘escape’ for my mother and the three youngest children. It was only a 15 minute drive from our house, and within the town limits; still, it was on the lake and had no running water, so it was quite the adventure (some of my very best memories are of those summers at the cottage).
Cars were always purchased used and meticulously maintained for longevity; getting a ‘drive’ somewhere was a luxury and only happened if we need to get someplace that the Crosstown bus didn’t go (we were also expected to walk anywhere our feet could take us). Allowances were meager (and based on completing specified tasks around the house). There was never any ‘extra’ money available for ‘trivial’ purchases or things we might have coveted (‘wanted’) but didn’t ‘need’. Each of the children had part-time jobs by the time we were old enough to be considered ‘trustworthy’ (I was babysitting my oldest brother’s three children, as well as various and sundry neighbourhood kids [for 35 cents an hour] by the time I was eleven). Occasionally there was a ‘little extra’ and Dad would treat us to a restaurant lunch after church, or there’d be an ‘extra’ gift when a birthday came around, but those were rare. And while money was never discussed outright in our house, you understood what ‘we can’t afford it’ meant, and you didn’t ask for something that wasn’t an absolute necessity.
The fall I turned 11, I fell in love with a dress I saw in the window of the children’s clothing store on the main street (there is still an ‘exclusive’ children’s clothing store in the same building; I don’t recall what it was called in 1965, but now it’s Harrington’s). It was black velvet with three quarter length sleeves and a flared skirt, edged at the collar and cuffs with antique white lace – and it was on sale for ‘only’ $40.00. (That might sound inexpensive in today’s dollars, but in 1965 it represented almost an entire week’s income for my father). How I wanted that dress! Every time my mother and I went downtown (for any purpose whatsoever), I’d stare rapturously at it. Mom would nod and murmur something along the lines of ‘It’s a lovely dress, dear’ but it was clear that there just wasn’t the money for something so completely frivolous – especially considering the fact that I had gotten a brand new ‘party dress’ for my 10th birthday and it still fit (I hadn’t gone through any major growth spurts yet). Eventually the dress was taken out of the window, and I tried to forget about it. But it was hard.
Then, one spring day (just before Easter), my mother took me into her bedroom and opened her closet door. And there – hanging in a tiny space amidst her clothes – was THE DRESS. I burst into tears. My father – who’d been in the bedroom when we’d come in – looked baffled. “I thought she wanted it,” he exclaimed. My mother just shook her head at him. “Those are tears of joy,” she said (although I’m not sure he entirely understood). It turns out the dress had been marked down a second time and my mother had used some of her ‘housekeeping money’ to buy it for me. Now, my mother wasn’t given to buying extravagant gifts for any one of us, so this was a particularly special moment – she’d bought me something I had coveted, and she’d sacrificed a few groceries to do it. It was one of those events that remain etched in your mind forever. (I still have that dress; it is lovingly stored in a fabric garment bag and hangs in my closet. I had hoped to pass it on to a daughter, but since I had two boys, I’m hoping to someday see it on a granddaughter.)
In 1994, my mother surprised me again by presenting me with an antique doll she’d had restored to look like me (as a girl). She had dressed her in a replica of ‘my little black dress’ – a dress Mom had meticulously handmade herself (I cried as much then as I did in 1965 when she I first saw the dress). Originally, ‘Blanche’ (who is also wearing my grandmother’s cameo on a chain around her neck) ‘lived’ in the cabinet with my (modern) porcelain dolls; in 2008, when my mother moved in to my brother’s house and gave me my ‘inheritance’ (her antique doll collection) early, I moved her to the cabinet that contains my mother’s dolls (where I think she is happier).
That doll means more to me than all my other dolls combined (including the ones I still have from my early childhood, and up to and including my collector Barbies). This past Thursday (on what would have been Mom’s 95th birthday) I took her out of the cabinet and held her for just a little while – and I remembered what it was like to be eleven again, instead of on … the other side of 55.