My sister’s dress
Would the Prince have found Cinderella anyway, without the dress and glass slippers? Who knows. But I say, never underestimate the power of one good dress. For me, it was my sister’s dress—not even mine.
Mother made it from looking at a photograph in Vogue magazine. She sewed two hours a day, five days a week. When the two hours were coming to an end, she finished the immediate part of what she was doing, like a seam or pulling out pins, then stopped. She would drape a big sheet over the sewing machine and her work table, and walk away. It made me crazy that she could turn her back on what she was doing, when another hour would have finished it, but she was resolute.
It was a terrific lesson in patience and discipline, knowing what could be accomplished in two hours each day. Mother took turns sewing for me and Shelly, and our closets were full of beautiful clothes.
Mother learned how to sew from her mother, Adele, a couturier seamstress who had worked at one of the big fashion houses in Paris. Papa Lou brought Adele home after the war, back to Texas. Grandmother Adele taught her only daughter how to design and sew as magnificently as she did, and Mother was so good that she sewed for the public before she married Dad; after that she only sewed for herself and we girls.
After Shelly graduated in May, she took a job at the 24-hour restaurant down on the interstate. Dad said it was ok, because the restaurant didn’t serve alcohol and Shelly worked the breakfast shift. She made good tips, and was off work in time to spend afternoons at the swimming pool and still go out in the evenings.
She saved most of her money, but she did have two indulgences: expensive sunglasses (because she’d learned that pulling them off at precisely the right moment could have devastating results), and designer hand bags, both of which she bought used from a ritzy consignment shop.
The state was widening and rebuilding the interstate, and very early each morning some of the contractors and engineers would come into the restaurant for breakfast, and Shelly would wait on them. She got their orders right, kept the coffee cups filled, and deftly turned aside their flirting They tipped her well, and after a week, Shelly knew everyone’s name, and they knew they’d never get anywhere with Shelly. They were all too old anyway, except for a highway engineer named Farber Crenshaw, but he barely said a word to her anyway.
Shelly and her girlfriend Lynette had a big double-date planned with Lynette’s brother Allen, and his college roommate, Gregory Pierce. Gregory had been dying to take out Lynette, and no male with brains at all would have passed up a chance to take out Shelly, even one who’d known her since she was a Brownie Scout with a lisp. Only now Shelly was tall and slender, with a world-class bosom, and a great cloud of sable hair that fell around her shoulders. Her eyes were the color of lemon drops and she looked a lot like Grandmother Adele—a look that was distinctly feline.
Shelly was almost two years older than me, but she’d been born in mid-September and I’d been born in late August, and that put us one year apart in school. Her looks were striking. My looks were kindly described as “the girl next door,” with hair the color of Karo pancake syrup and green eyes. And all my inches—both up and down, and all around, were a lot less than Shelly’s. People always did a double take when they learned that Shelly and Addy—I was named after Adele—were sisters.
My sister saw this dress in Vogue, and wanted one like it because the big date was a Fourth of July dinner dance at Gregory’s parents’ country club in the city. The dress Mother created was a perfect copy of the one in the magazine. She used some material that I’d had my eye on, but never said I wanted, and then it was too late.
It was this amazing sundress with a tight bodice and a pouffed skirt, in a polished cotton print of orange hibiscus on white, with little touches of black. If you’ve ever eaten a Creamsicle, that’s what color the orange was, and Shelly looked just as yummy. Mother sewed on shiny black buttons where the straps attached to the bodice in front, and bought a thin black patent belt to finish it off.
The boys, when they came to pick her up, looked thunderstruck and I felt a little sorry for Lynette, who looked like a pre-teen Dolly Parton, all fluffy in pink and white. Shelly looked like she’d just stepped off the runway at a fashion show.
When Shelly arrived at the country club wearing a Versace copy, Chanel sunglasses, and carrying vintage Kate Spade, Gregory Pierce’s mother was very confused, because she had a magazine subscription to Vogue too, and she’d been told that Allen’s date was a waitress.
Mrs. Pierce was also two drinks ahead of everyone else. And though the girls weren’t drinking, their dates were. Mrs. Pierce got more weird as the evening went on, and Mr. Pierce kept asking Shelly to dance. For all her sophisticated looks, Shelly was non-plussed by Mrs. Pierce’s extremely personal questions about who her “people” were, and what did her father do, and finally, where did she get that dress because the nearest place to buy a Versace was Neiman Marcus in Dallas, and they were a long way from Dallas.
Nearly in tears, Shelly bolted for the restroom, and didn’t see that Mrs. Pierce was following her. What happened next is confusing, because Shelly says Mrs. Pierce pulled on the back of Shelly’s dress, like she was trying to fish out the label. Shelly jerked away, and Mrs. Pierce who was completely drunk, slipped and fell in a wet spot on the floor, taking the back of Shelly’s dress with her.
Horrified, Mrs. Pierce scrabbled about on the slick terrazzo floor like a downer cow, and Shelly dashed out of the restroom, running headlong into Farber Crenshaw, who had just arrived at the dance. Farber immediately pulled off his jacket and put it around Shelly’s shoulders, and escorted her to his car.
When she was sensible enough to tell him what happened, he went back inside to find her purse and sunglasses, and informed Lynette, Allen, and Gregory that he would be taking Shelly home, and that they should probably head that way themselves. Mr. and Mrs. Pierce were no where in sight.
It was a little after ten when Shelly came in with Farber and I was sitting on the sofa in my pajamas, eating a root beer float. Farber told me to get my parents, which I did, then Mother took Shelly upstairs while Farber explained the story as best he could to Dad. Farber looked at me and asked if there was anymore root beer and ice cream, and instead of saying yes, I just fixed him a serving in the biggest glass we had.
After that, Farber came by now and then, even after Shelly left for college. Finally one evening, Dad took Farber aside and gently told him that Shelly was a lost cause, but Farber, man-to-man, carefully explained to Dad that he wasn’t interested in Shelly: he was keeping his eye on me.
Dad let out a whoosh in surprise, and said, “Son, you’ll have to wait a long time—.” But Farber, who could explain things better than any man I ever knew, said that in his world progress was measured in feet, not miles, and getting in a hurry was pointless. He was patient, and he had all the time in the world to wait. I guess they came to an accord, because it wasn’t until I graduated from high school that Farber asked me out.
Of course my sister never wanted to see the dress again, and Mother uncharacteristically threw it in the trash. But I found it, and carefully took it apart (Mother’s dainty, perfect stitches!) and salvaged the skirt. I washed and pressed the fabric and put it in my cedar chest … my hopeless chest I’d always called it.
A few years later, when Farber and I announced our engagement, and I was checking the contents of my hope chest, I found the orange hibiscus print. From my sister’s dress, the one that brought the prince. So I did what any good designer would do, I made an apron out of it, cut with style and panache. I cut out one of the flowers to make a pocket, and embroidered it with silk floss in black. It was gorgeous, and the most unlikely apron you ever saw, but I think Versace would have approved. If Farber ever recognized the material, he never said so, and as for me … I did my best cooking in that apron.
Maybe you don’t believe the dress had anything to do with it, but Cinderella and I know better.