When the urge strikes. . .
When I was a little girl I remember, vaguely, some dresses that my grandmother Evelyn bought for my sister Tracy and I. One was pink and one was blue. They had full skirts with crinolines underneath. The tops were black (I think) with short, cap sleeves and a round neck-line. The skirts were large print gingham with black silhouette cutouts around the bottom. There were ladies, men and poodles as I recall.
My sister and I loved those beautiful little dresses. Grandma even bought us matching white patent leather shoes to wear with them. I remember feeling so pretty and so special when I put it on. I couldn’t have been more than 4 or 5 years old at the time.
My parents were dirt poor. My father was a private in the army and was gone a lot of the time. My mother was left at home by herself to take care of us. There was barely enough money for food at that time, and certainly never any money to buy us pretty things like dresses or shiny white shoes.
Of course, I knew none of that then. All I knew is that my beautiful, tall and elegant grandmother had descended like a fairy godmother to bring my sister and I fancy dresses, like those a princess would wear.
My grandparents had come for a visit and they were taking us all out for dinner or lunch. Sadly, I don’t remember if we ever wore those dresses more than that one time. We wanted to wear them all the time, but of course, were not allowed. Shortly after that my father was posted to Manitoba. Whether the dresses came with us or not is a mystery. I certainly don’t remember ever wearing mine again.
And then, our house burnt down. It was a ramshackle affair in a town called Wheatland. It was situated on a dusty prairie road alongside some train tracks. I recall that most of the people living there were poor, like us. I don’t believe we had running water; the house was heated by a pot belly stove. That’s why it burnt down, in fact.
My sister and I saw it happen. We had gotten up to go to the bathroom and came down to use the toilet beside my parents bedroom. We saw that the pile of newspapers next to the stove had caught fire. We were afraid to wake my parents up and so we just ran right back up the stairs to our bedroom, which was right above the stove, and crawled back in to bed. We laid there, awake, scared, crying and not knowing what to do when suddenly we heard my mother and father screaming and shouting.
My father came up the stairs and got each of us (there were six of us at that time, including my infant brother, Shawn). The stairs were on fire already and he had to throw us through the flames to our mother who was waiting to catch us at the bottom of the stairs. Thankfully, I have blocked all that out. Tracy and I were put in charge of our siblings, including Shawn, (we were 5 and 6 at the time) while my parents did their best to salvage what they could.
The next day, or maybe it was many days later, when we came back to see the house I remember Tracy and I crying and asking what happened to our dresses. My mother, obviously stressed to the breaking point, screamed at us that we were selfish little girls and said something about “those goddamned dresses” .
I know now as an adult that there were some big issues between my mother and my grandmother. Probably the fact that we were so distraught over something trivial like a pretty party dress reminded her of all that she had given up for the kind of life she had. We had lost everything, and we didn’t have much to begin with, we were homeless, we were poor and we were alone, thousands of miles away from ‘home’, Ontario, where both my parents had grown up. I can’t imagine the kind of despair they must have felt.
Still, when ever I think back on that time I wonder about those dresses. And I have mixed feelings of joy and sorrow for those little girls who got to feel so pretty and so special for such a brief moment in their lives. There never was another pretty dress for either of us, until we grew up enough to afford them ourselves.
©Kathy Larson, 2012
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