NONFICTION
Secondhand
Allison Theresa

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A number of years after I got married but before the divorce, I sat with my grandmother and pried into her memory about the dress she and my mother and I wore as brides. “I bought it brand new, you know. Picked the prettiest one from the bridal catalog.” I don’t know what I expected to hear but this surprised me. I frequented every thrift store and resale shop in the tri-county area with this woman. Our favorite outing was to a discount grocery store called Panhandle Salvage where they priced the soon-to-be-expired ice cream so cheap they  were bought out before the pints made it to the freezer. Even most of my grandmother’s Tupperware came secondhand, saved from sour cream and spaghetti sauce containers. The thought of my grandmother paying full price for anything, let alone something as extravagant as a wedding dress, was as strange and foreign to me as her reasons for excessive thriftiness. I waited a moment, curious as to see what else she might reveal if uninterrupted, but instead her eyes closed slowly and she seemed to forget for a moment I was there listening. After a beat, she  shook her head slightly, returning from her night in the dress in 1952 to the living room where we sat. 

“Where did say you found it?”  

 

*****

I don’t like telling stories of my wedding or the marriage to my ex-husband. I’ve learned that the pity it incites is rarely worth the anecdote. But I like telling one: the story of the dress. I found it in a suitcase at the top of a forgotten closet. Alone in the house, I often found treasures here—an embroidered pillowcase, a half-filled photo album, a miniature Mona Lisa in a plastic gold frame.

 

But when I popped open the brass snaps of the creamy blue Samsonite, an old bedsheet and a sliver of silk made my breath catch in my throat. I unrolled the sheet to reveal the gown I recognized from my mom’s and grandmother’s bridal portraits.  

The lace stretched from a tight ring at the collar out toward the tips of the sleeveless shoulders and to the bottom hem of the silk underbody. The bodice beneath crested in two peaks to craft a sweetheart neckline below the lace. If it hadn’t been sewn together at the waist, the two materials could have constituted separate garments. The back was split by a long row of buttons, sewn so close that they touched one another, and string of tiny correlating loops. The A-line of the skirt fell just above my mom’s and grandmother’s ankles in the pictures, and the whole thing looked whiter there than it did in my hands now. Below the sheet lay a deconstructed hooped petticoat and a plastic bag stuffed with tulle that was presumably a veil.

 

I held up the dress to myself in the bathroom mirror, careful to avoid the crusted toothpaste I’d left on the counter. I could only see from my waist up but I thought it would look good on me. I twirled with my inanimate dance partner back to the suitcase and imagined the day I would walk down the aisle to the boy I loved, like a carbon copy of the brides framed in our entryway.  

The sound of the garage door opening brought me back to the present. Panicked, I wrapped the dress back in the bedsheet, stuffing its errant sides into the suitcase, and launched it back to the spot on the shelf where I found it before my mom walked in to join me for lunch. Over takeout pad thai, we talked about my upcoming senior photos and prom plans, but I began to imagine the day I would try on the dress for real: my mom’s tears, my grandmother’s nod of approval, myself set in the form of the women that made me. 

Neither my mom nor my grandmother ever pressured me to get married. In fact, their attitude toward it all was quite the opposite. The idea of me marrying my high school sweetheart failed to impress them like it did my peers. When the boy gave me a promise ring—a cheesy, two-toned number with a tiny diamond set in the middle—my mom laid down the same ultimatum my grandmother had given her when my mom began dating my dad in college: “Get a degree, then you can do whatever you want.”  

What I wanted was an initiation into the womanhood the dress seemed to embody. I wanted a photo like theirs. One heeled foot a half step in front of the other. Silk flowers held at my waist. The lace of our heirloom fit to my body. But what I told my mom, and myself at the time, was that I loved this boy so much I wanted to spend my life with him starting as soon as possible.

 

*****

 

I finished my undergraduate degree in three years and, at twenty-one, swapped the promise for an engagement ring. At the dining room table, I told my mom I wanted to be the third wearer of the wedding dress. She responded with a measured, “if that’s what you want,” dashing my hopes of a gushing approval.  

Though tears flow from me as easily as sweat, they only appear on my mom’s face in crystalized singles, quickly reigned in by a change of subject or a coarse napkin’s edge. When I cried, her response was often a strong suggestion that I go wash my face in cold water. I don’t know where I lifted the image of a soapy scene from, but sitting across my mom, I realized my  expectations of her response were purely fiction. She had always tried to teach me that, for sensitive souls, the way to stay unhardened is to keep your heart guarded by its cage of ribs. No use pinning it to your sleeve or anywhere else a heart’s not supposed to be. Despite my best efforts, I never mastered the lesson. 

When the sting from her chill wore off, my mom helped me into the dress. Maybe sensing my initial disappointment or just to fill the loaded silence with sound, she began telling me what she knew about the garment.  

“Your grandmother cut this dress up a few years after she wore it. She was going to use it for  something. Who knows what.”  

I knew this recurring narrative well. All around my grandmother’s house were half-finished  projects. The collection of perfectly cut circles of fabric stacked in a hall closet. The box of tangled jewelry on the side table. The stuffed file cabinet drawer labelled “TO SORT.” In cutting the dress, my grandmother envisioned something but stopped before anything more than a mess was made.  

My mom continued, muffled now by the layers of dress around my neck, “We had to put the whole thing back together again so I could wear it. She took it in a bit for me and I dropped the petticoat and hoop. In the 80s, the 50s weren’t as fashionable as they are now. After my wedding, we just stuffed it into the suitcase. I guess if I’d known you wanted to wear it, I could have preserved it.” But I already knew that precious things were preserved better by the magic of forgetting.  

We shimmied the cinched waist over my bust. Set in place, the thing cut off my already shallow breathing. I tried to quiet the panic inside me and stood up straighter. My mom assessed the dress, the seams struggling to hold me together, and furrowed her brow. She had mostly spared me from surveillance of my body, from indoctrinating me with her own insecurities, from loading trips to the Gap for larger pants with undue emotional consequence. But in that moment, all she said was, “knowing your grandmother, she probably cut out the extra seams.” 

My hands shot to my blushing cheeks and inky tears gathered at my fingertips. I whispered, “I need to take it off now.”

 

In seamless movement, my mom pulled the whole garment over my head, laid it inside out on the bed, and excused herself. I sunk to the floor as soon as the door closed and let silent saltwater run down to my strapless bra. The inside stitching of the dressed seemed in my watery vision like a ghoulish skeleton of my fantasy. I hadn’t imagined the flowers or the food or the decor or the guest list, but I had imagined this moment going so much differently.  

I turned the dress right side out and noticed for the first time the dime-sized wine stain on the skirt, the bit of torn lace at the armpit, a doubt about my decision to get married prickling my stomach. I threw on the oversized t-shirt I’d slept in the night before and went to wash my face in cold tap. In the mirror, I took in my puffy visage and thought if I can’t wear this dress, I don’t want to get married at all.  

When I returned to my room, my mom was there pinching at the dress. “Looks like there may be some seam left here. I bet a good tailor could make it work.”  

*****

During our first appointment at the only place that would dare to touch our heirloom, we were given a room in the middle of the floor. Dresses with trains and tulle and taffeta surrounded us. The dress, limp in my hands, looked more yellow in this sea of white.  

Other mothers and grandmothers paused their private performances to dote over the dress, over me, over my mom. They sighed and said things like “well if my dress looked like that I bet Lauren would actually want to wear it” and “how beautiful that you two can share this” and “you look just like your mother.” While my mom took a seat, too close to these strangers for her liking, I followed the chipper stylist behind the curtain.  

“How exciting that you’re wearing your mom’s dress. Is she so excited?” “Uh, yeah. I think she is.”  

“Amazing. Ok sugar, let’s get you into this thing.”  

A quick catch in my throat made the next words tumble out like an avalanche. “Ok. Um. So you know, last time it didn’t fit. Like at all. Like cut off my breathing kind of not fit. And we don’t know if my grandmother left any seam. And I don’t know if I’ll even be able to button—” The stylist put her hand on my shoulder, interrupting my spiral.  

“That’s okay, and totally normal. Let me find you something.”  

She disappeared and I heard the fake version of my mom’s laugh from just beyond the curtain. The stylist reappeared, a long-line bra with a hundred little snaps in her hands. “This  should make it just a little easier.”  

I turned around to take off my sports bra, feeling stupid that I put it on instead of the pretty one we bought for this purpose. I clasped the first few fasteners and let her  help me with the rest. Once secure, each of my inhales expanded the plastic ribbing. “Great, now we’ll just slide this over you. Dive right on through there.” She held the dress open in a circle like my mom used to do on special Sunday mornings before church. I  poked my head through.  

It felt a little better than it did the first time, though none of the buttons were even close to meeting. The stylist turned me to face the curtain and pulled it open. The moms and grandmas let out oooo’s and ahhh’s like a canned reaction from a live studio audience. The stylist looked at the dress but was talking to my mom when she said, “Yup, I can see here that we will need to take it out in a few places… maybe here… and a little more here.” She pointed at my waist and my bust.  

“My daughter is a little more gifted in that area.” my mom offered, landing the joke with seated women. The stylist and I stayed silent, smiling.  

After a beat, I asked “do you need anything else?”  

At the second appointment we were shown to a room with a door in the back. The dress hung with the same modern corset from before on an embellished hook. A stout woman with a pincushion on her wrist met us and began to pin the now much looser dress in all the places I was  unlike my mother and grandmother. “We had to take it apart so it fit you. Torn right down the seam,” the woman laughed and traced the seams in question with her palms. My mom followed her gestures attentively and made small talk about the age and condition of the dress. My thoughts wandered to my future sister-in-law who described birthing her daughter as “being torn at the seams.”  

At the third appointment we were back in the curtained room. The stylists from before brought in the dress with such care that I wanted to tell her it had been stuffed in a suitcase for more than two decades. I pointed my arms above my head, trained now at this dress diving, and let it slide over me. The stylist paused at the long line of buttons.  

“Now they just make it look like there are buttons. Everything we have has zippers. This is a real heirloom.” She let out a sigh to reassure herself and started at the bottom button. I felt a snag and heard her gasp. Quickly she said, “I should get your mom.” 

With a broken button in her hand, my mom joined me and began tucking each button in its appropriate loop. In her hands, the task was more perfunctory than performative. It was as if  she was braiding her own hair or scratching her own skin. With a soft pat she declared, “There. Much better than the first time we tried.”  

 

Both of us laughed until her hand went to the small stain. “I imagine that stain is more than 50 years old. I don’t think I even had wine at my wedding. I’m sure we could get that cleaned.” She pinched the fabric around it to assess the damage, but I pushed her hands away and smoothed out the spot.  

“It’s fine,” I said, imagining a twenty-year-old version of my grandmother. “Well, it’s your dress now.”  

*****

The rest of the preparations were a blur, and soon I was in the dress again standing at the back of the church. My dad steadied my free hand on his arm and I focused on keeping my bouquet from shaking. As the music rose and the pews groaned, I pulled my hand away to smooth the wine spot on my belly, its imperfection reassuring.  

 

I couldn’t see my mom or grandmother. They had taken their spots on the pew in the front. Here, in this inhale before the vows and the cake and the champagne, the dress felt like a form in which my body finally fit.  

 

When we drove to our hotel at the end of the night, I realized I only had the dress. I’d forgotten my luggage back at my parents’ house and I had no other clothes to change into. I barely got out the words “call someone” before tears took over. I knew someone would bring me my suitcase, I knew soon I would be out of the dress, but I couldn’t stop the sobs from howling out of me. My new husband made the necessary calls to his best man and tried to wipe the melting makeup from my face with a dirty shirt he’d left in the car.  

“Do you want to go inside?”  

I shook my head.  

“I think we’d be much more comfortable inside.”  

I set my jaw hard and stared out the windshield, pouting. He tried again. “We can stay here but I think we’d be more comfortable…”

“Jesus fucking Christ. I heard you. Let’s go.”

I leapt out of the car and slammed the door shut behind me. I was mad at myself for forgetting my suitcase, mad him for no good reason, mad at the dress for being too precious a burden at the moment. He pulled off his jacket and set it around my shoulders. I pulled it tight when we walked past another couple in the stairwell and laughed for a moment about the stories they might imagine of the newlyweds who looked broken and terrified, but as soon as we were in our hotel room, the tears returned and I couldn’t breathe. I lay flat on the bed to tried to give my heaving lungs as much room as possible within the tight layers of fabric. After listening to my husband flip through cable channels for an hour, I launched myself up and hissed, “get me out of this fucking dress.”  

 

He began the process of unbuttoning but paused after the first two. The silence threatened to bring back my tears but anger came quicker. I whipped around to shoot him a questioning look.  

“I just am afraid of tearing something,” he said. 

I turned back around, suddenly weary of the rage, and offered, “The buttons are easy to fix. I just need it off.”  

For a moment, I wished he would call my mom to help me out of our dress for the last time. But it was just us and it would be just us from this point forward, or at least that’s what I thought, standing there half unbuttoned and fully undone.

*****

My marriage got a different ending than my mom’s and grandmother’s. After five years, it was lying on a different bed in a different city, still trying to give my lungs enough room to breathe. But I wrote a version of the story of the dress before all of that, the end went like this:

People often comment on the strong likeness I share with my mother. Some overly complimentary men even say we look like sisters. But we are not sisters. She and I are made of the same material, the same dark eyes and hard-earned love. The same material as her mother. Each new woman is created from tearing the seams of the one before, the same delicate lace and stiff satin, stitched with fresh thread for a new body. My dad always warned me that as girls become women, they become more like their mothers. But he didn’t warn me about the ways they are the same from the start. 

The way I used to tell the story about the dress is a lie about tucking it back into the suitcase we found it in; it waxes poetic about a daughter’s self being secondhand from her mother and her mother’s mother, and spins the whole thing into proof that the day I wore the dress was the first day of my forever—like it had been for the other women in my family.

The truth is we hung the dress on a padded hanger in the closet next to the file of documents I’d need to change my name back after the divorce. The truth is there is more of me that doesn’t fit into that womanhood I imagined looking at my mom’s and  grandmother’s bridal portraits. I arrived at adulthood without knowing how I got here or why I insisted for so long on wearing a dress that doesn’t fit. The way I end the story now is with a prayer that the older I get the less I’ll need the reassurance of things given to me secondhand. 

Allison Theresa is a student of Columbia’s MFA program and freelance writer. She writes about Southern selves and how the stories we tell shape us. You can find more of her work at allisontheresa.com