Only Half a Wedding Dress
by Lois Donahue
Grandma was kneeling near an outside corner of the house. Running up behind her, I asked, “What are ya doin’, Grandma?” Without turning, she answered, “I’m praying.”
By that time I was close enough to see that she was really weeding her small flower garden. I’m certain the look of confusion on my face prompted her to smile and explain, “Everything you do can be a prayer, little one, if you do it for the love of God.” She handed me a short-handled hoe and said, “Now come pray with me.” That’s how Grandma shared with us her strong, simple, practical faith: words reinforced by example. I remember when I was a child how often she would remind me – especially on Christmas and my birthday when I opened gifts – that, “Everything you have is given to you by God, little one, and He gives it to you so you can share it with others.” Those particular words are deeply etched in my memory because of how dramatically Grandma gave them life the very last time we talked.
I was a curious romantic of 10 when my mother and I went to Chatsworth, Ontario, Canada, to help prepare for my grandmother’s golden wedding celebration. While the grown-ups labored in the real world of brooms and polish, I sought adventure in the shadowy atmosphere of the dusty attic. Every trunk, every box, every picture held its own intriguing story – true stories told me over the years by various members of my family. But that day I heard a new and unforgettable story which stemmed from a plain black box that I had discovered hidden behind a large, leather-handled trunk.
How well I remember opening the box and untying the faded satin ribbon which seemed to guard its contents. With eager anticipation, I folded back the limp tissue paper. There lay what appeared to be a very old, but still very beautiful, dress. It was made of a smooth, soft material the color of dry sand. The sleeves were folded under the bodice which was covered with dainty lace-trimmed pleats from the high neck to the whalebone-stiffened waist. Looking closely, I could see small, even, handmade stitches, which in themselves told a story of long, eye-straining hours. This dress had to be something extra special. Almost reverently I lifted it from the box and was astonished to see that the lovely silk lined bodice was without a skirt. Had there ever been a skirt, I wondered? Yes there had, for there was still a slight seam crease and broken threads.
Immediately I started to improvise my 10-year-old’s romance that explained this half-dress. Some young girl’s lover had deserted her on the eve of her wedding and she tore her dress in anger. No, that couldn’t be right because it hadn’t been torn. Perhaps their home had been burned and she risked her life to save this half of her favorite dress. I shook my head. No, fire would have left charred, uneven edges. Half a dress just had to have a story, I thought to myself. Grandma would know.
I found her in her sewing room tacking a narrow ribbon to the black lace cap she always wore on special occasions.
“What happened to the rest of this dress, Grandma?” I asked breathlessly.
She put down her needle and took the dress in her wrinkled hands. “It was my wedding dress,” she said softly.
I eyed the dress with its slender waistline, then glanced at Grandma’s abundant figure spread over the heirloom rocker. Well, 50 years could make the difference, I thought to myself, and dropped down on the needlepoint footstool beside her.
“Tell me about it,” I begged.
“It’s made of Indian muslin, what we called nainsook,” she explained. “Originally it was purchased for my Grandmother’s wedding dress and came from England by way of Philadelphia in about 1774.”
“That’s right, but the outbreak of the American Revolution changed her wedding arrangements. There was just no room for such a gown in Grandmother’s quiet, unceremonious war wedding.”
“But how did you get it, Grandma?” I asked impatiently.
“That took some years, little one. You see, my Grandfather could not bring himself to fight against England. He stayed home and took care of the family property in Pennsylvania, while his two brothers fought with General Washington. When the war was over, he and Grandmother, along with other United Empire Royalists, moved to Canada to settle land which had been set aside for those who wanted to live on English-governed soil.”
“But the dress Grandma,” I interrupted her, this was no time for a history lesson!
“I’m coming to that.” she assured me. “My grandparents had a long, hard journey from Pennsylvania to what was then called Upper Canada. Many of their possessions were stolen by hostile Indians. Some were bartered for food and lodging, but Grandmother never parted with the bolt of material that was to have been her wedding dress.”
Grandma smiled down at me. “I know, I know, you’re getting anxious. Well, to make a long story short, I’ll just say that Grandmother finally used the material to make a gown for her daughter Pamelia, my mother, and it was later altered for me when I married Grandpa.”
“But what did you do with the other half?” I persisted.
She touched my hand to silence me and gazed out the window. “In 1855, your Grandfather and I decided to move farther west to land that offered greater opportunities for a man with a growing family. Chatsworth was just barely a town then, but it did have a small woodworking plant. It was here that your Grandfather applied his skills in making plows, tools, church benches, and school desks. As soon as he could, he even built this house for us.”
Grandma looked back at me with mist in her eyes. “Here comes your answer, little one, she said. “In 1856 there was a widespread outbreak of black diphtheria. So many babies and small children died that there weren’t enough coffins in which to bury them. Your Grandfather volunteered to undertake the heartbreaking job of making more. I can still see the rows of tiny boxes, so bare and so cold looking. They needed something – something soft to cover the hard, uncaring wood.”
“You cut up your wedding dress to line those coffins?” I asked in horror.
Compassionate eyes looked deep into mine. “Don’t you think that is what God would have wanted me to do with my dress?” she half whispered.
Grandma’s story was finished. She dabbed her eyes and folded the remains of the dress in its box. I leaned over, kissed her soft cheek, took the box and returned to the attic. Even a 10-year-old sometimes knows that silence speaks best when the heart has something to say, about a grandmother’s distant memories and how she lived her faith.
Based on a true story originally published in “Our Sunday Visitor”