Photo Credit: Patachou, for Children’s Salon
A Sandbox Mom recalls memories of her first formal event, and a fancy dress that changed her life.
The first time I attended a wedding, I was six years old. It was a night of many firsts for me–my first formal occasion, first fancy dress, the first time I recall going out alone with my mother, and my first evening event.
My parents had married as teenagers. By the time they were in their early twenties, they had three children with another baby on the way. We lived in a remote area, far from family and friends, with no street lights or telephones.
We saw our grandfathers occasionally on public holidays. Both grandmothers passed away when our parents were young. Once in a while, Mummy organized play dates with another family. On Sundays we attended church. We did not get out much.
My mother was gentle, patient, and adventurous. I felt safe with her.
One of my earliest memories was of picking peas with her in the garden. I might have been three years old. I can still see her crouched over the rows in that field, and almost smell the cool, dark soil. She seated me near where she was harvesting, showing me how to shell into a big bowl.
I loved the sweet, spring peas so much that she had to take away the bowl and give me another “job”. I smile now, recalling how practical and understanding she was. There wasn’t a mean bone in her body.
Mummy was a natural teacher. She organized our home life so well that, in time, we all learned to cook, clean, budget, and help with the younger siblings. There was always much to do in our crowded, growing family. Most of my early years felt unremarkable, our family life revolving around simple home routines.
One day, my mother announced that she and I would attend her cousin’s wedding. A few days later, she called me to her to show me what I would be wearing: a little red velvet dress.
I have no idea where she got the dress. I had never seen it before.
Had she sewn it? To save money, Mummy had taught herself how to sew. She had a gold, plastic sewing box with one pair of scissors, a pin cushion, and a blue seam ripper. Best of all, there was a mysterious collection of mismatched buttons in a small Gerber baby food jar.
I opened that jar any time I could. I loved sorting the children’s novelty buttons, sweater fastenings, even a glittering, rhinestone solitaire. I imagined the outfits they would embellish. Those buttons did more for my imagination than paper dolls and books. That small, repurposed container hinted of a world larger than ours.
Our hall closet held no stacks of fabric. Mummy would not have had the means to go shopping. She did have one friend with a daughter about my age. I do not know whether she got fabric from this Aunt, or borrowed a dress for me to wear to the wedding.
However she managed it, Mummy was so excited when she pulled out the red dress to show me. I remember it had a straight bodice, with a pleated skirt. The fabric was stiff, with the feel of vintage velvet.
I have no idea why I burst into tears when I saw that dress.
All I remember is that I did not want to wear it. I remember thinking that I was willing to wear any of my other clothes. I remember crying and giving my mother a really hard time. I doubt it had anything to do with the dress. I was a shy and sensitive little girl.
I wonder now how my young mother felt. I am sure she must have sacrificed, either to sew or to find me a dress to wear. She wanted to take me with her to a wedding, when she probably had not attended any events by herself since she got married.
I cannot ask her anymore, nor can I ask her friend, because they have both passed away. After Mummy died, one of her friends wrote a poem recalling how she’d always called her children her “jewels.”
On the day of the wedding, Mummy zipped me into the red velvet dress and styled my hair. She and I got into the brown station wagon and took the long road uptown to the church, just the two of us. I do not recall much about the ceremony. It felt like going to church, and I believe I fell asleep.
But then we left for the reception. I could feel my mother’s happiness as we drove to the hotel. Holding her hand, we approached the banquet room. The enormous doors swung open. The room was buzzing with joy. From the back I saw tables with crisp, starched linens. There were so many people who were happy to see us.
Someone seated my mother close to the front. We unfolded cloth napkins and placed them on our laps. Taking in the splendid activity around me, I silently spelled out the word, b-a-n-q-u-e-t. We could choose the kind of meat we were served. It all felt dazzling and delicious.
Then came the visits. There were so many people who knew my mother and embraced her. As they came to her, she proudly introduced me. Over the course of the evening, I walked shyly alongside her to various tables to meet family and friends. They all greeted me, and most of them told me how lovely I looked in that little red velvet dress.
By the end of the night, I had a completely different opinion about what Mommy had “made me” wear.
What I remember the most from that evening is the feeling of being welcomed and wanted. It may have been the first time I understood that my mother was a real person, and I was too. It was the first time I felt a part of something. I felt comfortable, and pretty, safe and seen.
After that wedding, my mother could have put me in a croker sack, and I would have obliged. I learned to trust her when I felt anxious. I learned that there was a larger world than the one I had always known. I learned that I could be seen, and was loved by a tribe of wholesome people I’d never even met. Who knew that a fancy dress would help me understand so much?
As parents, we sometimes become so concerned about whether we are doing well enough with our kids, that we overlook the value of our presence. We cannot know which simple life event will foster their growth.
Later, I would marry and have a daughter, far away from home. When she was born, I intuitively understood that an important part of building her self-esteem would be choosing clothing that allowed her to be seen as an individual.
One of the first pieces of clothing I saved up to buy for her was soft, plush, and warm, a bright red snow suit that popped when I carried her on my shoulders for our winter walks.
Along the way, we met neighbours and shopkeepers. I greeted them personally, and began introducing my baby by name. We shared weekly Mommy-and-me adventures over a latte and dessert. I had the coffee, she had the foam. In time, we found a community that greeted each of us by name, as individuals. Before she could walk and talk, this marvelous child became a visible member of our vibrant neighbourhood.
Thousands of miles away from my family, over twenty five years from the evening I wore a little red velvet dress, the memory of my first formal event kept shaping the ways I mothered my daughter.
I remembered the power of red. I remembered becoming visible and unique. I recognized the difference in my daughter, and used ordinary social encounters to encourage her to see herself, and respect others by seeing them, too.
Raising children is a process of formation. Our job as parents is to create opportunities, encourage their participation, and remain present while we lead them along. Sometimes, the process involves tug-of-war, sometimes stretching. I am glad my mother knew how lovely that little red dress would look on me.
Like glittering buttons in my mother’s sewing jar, I treasure the memories of my first fancy dress, my first formal event, and the first time I recognized my mother as a separate human person.
I marvel at the quiet strength and intuition with which she dressed me for life by insisting that I wear what she carefully chose for me.
I am startled by the capacity of community to change the perceptions of a child.
I am amazed by how much I understood, but could not verbalize, at six years old.
My heart goes out to other children who are waiting for the one moment they will be recognized and included, can see themselves with new eyes, and step through new doors.
A strong thread of love from that red velvet dress still tugs at my heart.
Do you remember a piece of clothing that changed the way you perceived yourself as a child? Drop a comment below. We love hearing your stories.