A single object can stir so many memories.
By Mary Daily
Cleaning out my closet, getting ready for a new season, I came across a classic navy blue dress way in back. Collarless, sleeveless and knee-length, it’s what we once called a sheath. It’s made of lightweight wool serge and lined with the same. The label reads “BERGDORF GOODMAN.” It’s the only thing I’ve ever owned from the elegant New York store.
I bought the dress in June 1999. I’d flown to New York from Los Angeles to spend a few days alone in a friend’s apartment in Turtle Bay. The weather was perfect, sunny and mild, and the breeze felt like a whisper on my skin. In the evenings, I’d walk in the neighborhood, carrying only my credit card, until I came upon some small café that made me think, “Yes, there.” After a quiet dinner, I’d walk back, wishing I could capture the beautiful night and make all other nights just like it. At the apartment, sitting on the tiny deck, I could almost touch the Chrysler Building. After dark, the city looked like an open jewelry box that my mother might have kept on her dresser.
Buying the blue dress was a bit of a splurge, but somehow I knew it would become important to me. It got its initiation the very next month when my father died and I needed the perfect dress for his funeral.
When I learned of his death, I flew to my hometown in Alabama, where my brothers had funeral planning well underway. When I drove up at my parents’ house, my oldest brother bounded out the back door, hugged me and said, “Glad you’re here. We’ve gone as far as we can without you.” It was up to me, as the only daughter, to approve their choice of Daddy’s burial suit (I selected a different one) and his tie, as I often did on Sunday mornings growing up.
My father was a minister and a dapper dresser. He usually chose his outfit for Sunday the day before. Sometimes he’d decide the suit needed pressing. He knew our neighborhood dry cleaners shut off their steam early on Saturdays. He’d call the older woman who worked the front counter and ask, “Mrs. Henson, have you still got steam?” (I’ve wondered if that ever made her blush.) She could usually accommodate him.
On Sunday morning, when I got up, Daddy would be in his study with the door closed, softly rehearsing his sermon. Later he would emerge, wearing suit pants and a dress shirt. He’d give his shoes one last shine, popping a flannel cloth across them, as the professionals do, and ask me to pick a tie from the many that hung on a rack on the inside of his closet door. On Mother’s Day and other special occasions, I’d clip a rose bud from the garden for his lapel. Now, it was my job to pick his last tie, the one he’d wear to his grave as he was lowered into Alabama’s red clay. I made sure to pick one with some red, his favorite color.
On the day of the funeral, I arrived early at the chapel where Daddy’s body lay in state in an open casket. My brothers and I had bought a blanket of red roses for the top of his coffin. As I stood there alone, looking at what remained of my father, I had one last thought. I pulled a bud from the blanket of roses, shortened its stem, and threaded it through the buttonhole in his lapel.
When guests began to arrive, I stationed myself at the door of the chapel until the last minute. At my mother’s service, seven years earlier, I’d been more reserved, remaining hidden away in the family area, but I had missed seeing many people who were important to me. This time I greeted dear friends I hadn’t seen in years and would never see again. I felt like I was my parents’ ambassador at a reception they couldn’t attend. And the beautiful blue dress gave me the extra bit of courage and composure I needed. I knew Daddy would have understood.
For the cemetery, I added a rolled-brim straw hat to shade me from the sun. The day was warm, but wool breathes and releases moisture, so I stayed comfortable in the damp Alabama heat.
Over the years, I wore the dress many more times. For my niece’s wedding, I tied a fancy scarf around my neck and shoulders. At some point I added a navy wool jacket to create a suit look for professional meetings.
Now I’m passing the dress on. It’s timeless, so I hope someone else will feel as well dressed in it as I did. But before I let it go, I’m carefully clipping out the label, to save among my treasures.
Mary Daily is a writer in Los Angeles.