The vibrancy that cannot be shrouded
By MARGUERITE QUANTAINE
Published November 5, 2006
A week after my father died in 1969, my mom bought her burial dress, a long-sleeved bevy of beige chiffon accordion pleats with contoured organdy hemlines and cuffs resembling parched petunias.
The collar was fashioned into a multilayered sash, cresting the shoulders and flowing down the back to veil the neck and screen the zipper. A peach taffeta sheath shimmered underneath.
"Everyone knows a wife dies seven years after her husband," Mom declared.
"Is that the law?" I asked.
"It is," she assured.
"And, if you don't die, what then? Do they give you a ticket?"
Mom flashed me the look of admonishment that every parent keeps ready to actuate in times of insolence.
"It's a glorious dress," she said.
"Yes," I conceded. "A veritable work of art."
My mom was never as thin as she thought she was, or planned to be. After 56 years, six children and a passion for chocolate, she arrived at widowhood 20 pounds heavier than ideal for her 5-foot frame.
Still, she was striking. Her ivory-streaked ebony curls were invariably fastened atop her head like crown jewels. Her posture was precise. Her apparel was meticulous, with a penchant for pastels, fabric flowers and contemporary styles.
Except for that dress. Where other designs died on the rack and emerged in time as retro vogue, her burial dress remained detained in 1969.
I don't know why Mom never saw fit to keep the dress in a garment bag. Perhaps she just preferred the convenience of instant viewing. Regardless, she carted it, unprotected, through five dress sizes, three homes and 37 more years.
"She makes me put it on, you know," my sister, Sue, disclosed one day.
"The burial dress?"
"Whatever for?" I wondered.
"So she can imagine how she'll look in her coffin."
"She's serious," Sue cautioned. "Every visit, she makes me put that dress on and lie down. Eyes closed. Hands folded. Perfectly still. She makes Kate do it, too. Every holiday. But Kate lies with arms stretched wide, like wings."
(Kate's our kid sister. Both she and Sue are 5 feet 7.)
"Yeah. When the sleeve pleats open, they look like angel wings."
"Why hasn't she asked me to try it on?" I almost pouted.
"Because you resemble a younger, thinner her," Sue teased. "She characterizes you as her little dolly." I scoffed at her remark, but took it as true.
"So? How do you look in it?"
"Puh-lease," she chortled.
Maybe I spurned the dress because Mom acted ageless by never appearing seriously sick. Sure, her gallbladder dealt her a fit before she gave up doughnuts, and she wrestled seasonal colds. But her heart was strong. Her wit was quick. She was ever valiant and resourceful.
Nevertheless, I phoned her every day after my dad died. And gradually, what began as a daughter's concern for her mother's well-being turned us into cronies.
As we aged, I called more frequently. Mine was the first voice she heard most mornings and the last each night. In between, we'd chat over coffee, prepare meals via speakers, trade views of the news and laugh at English comedies before retiring. An entire day's dialogue was condensed into less time than it takes most people to commute.
It was a fracture to her left leg that finally forced Mom to forfeit her independence for the security of Sue's care in Texas. Plans for our move were delayed so she could visit Florida once again.
"I'll be there on my birthday whether you like it or not," she vowed.
"Only 21 more days until you arrive," I grinned into the phone. "Are you feeling festive yet?"
"Actually," she said, then paused. "The strangest thing is happening right now. I'm watching my brain leave my head."
"What do you mean, Mom?"
"I'm not sure," she said quietly. "It's so odd. I don't know where it's going, or why. It just is."
"Like you're floating outside yourself, looking in?"
"No. I'm here. It's my brain I'm seeing go."
"Mom," I said. "You know I love you very much, don't you?"
"I . . . know . . . you . . . do," she echoed.
It was more of a blessing than a goodbye, those final four words of her life.
Three weeks later, on the morning of what should have been Mom's 93rd birthday, a package arrived from Texas.
While we'd been engaged in a dance of denial that she'd ever die, Mom wrote "cremation in my birthday suit" as a codicil to her will. Afterward, she painstakingly wrapped and lovingly labeled one last gift to me.
The dust of 37 years has darkened the chiffon, but each pleat remains crisp.
The organdy binding still echoes the contours of petunias. The taffeta slip still shimmers like skin. The sleeves, now raised, still mirror angel wings.
I encased the dress in glass and placed it as a watchtower over my desk.
It's treasured there as a testament to my mom, who always was what this dress truly is.
Marguerite Quantaine is an essayist living in Florida.