Margaret Koger

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Photo of Margaret Koger, 1st grade. Image courtesy of the author.

The Dress

Shortly before I was born, a 1944 film starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire popularized Irving Berlin’s 1933 song “Easter Parade.” I don’t remember seeing the movie, but by the time I was seven, I knew I’d had a new dress every Easter of my life. My older sisters and I loved to sing about wearing a bonnet—with all the frills upon on it—that could make us into the grandest ladies in the Easter Parade.

Mother made sure that our Easter celebrations combined the Biblical story with suitable spring icons—colorfully died eggs along with special baskets to put them in as we scrambled to find them in the yard. While bonnets were old fashioned by then, our new dresses, hats, and shoes combined to add excitement to the celebration. After all we’d outgrown our old winter clothes and they’d soon be too warm anyway. But new dresses and shoes for three girls cost a lot of money.

If I’d been older than seven that year, I might have noticed how Easter Sunday was coming up soon and that there’d been none of the usual preparations: shopping, measuring, and sewing. So it came as a complete surprise when Mother called me in from my outdoor play to tell me some news. When she looked around to make sure we no one else could hear what she had to say, I knew something was up.

“We can’t afford a new dress for you this year,” she said. The sadness in her eyes and the hush of her voice told me how distressed she felt. Naturally, it hurt me that my mother felt so distraught and possibly even ashamed. So after considering the situation, I waited until I was alone and rummaged around in the fabric drawer hoping to find some forgotten dress material. Voila! I discovered a sizeable piece of bright blue “polished” cotton. It was new to me and did not match anything else in the drawer.

I skipped with joy and ran to Mother. “You could use this!” I exclaimed.

“It’s not enough for a dress,” she answered, looking at it with surprise.

I nodded my head and went slowly out to play again. I’d set up an imaginary house by lining out sticks and stones under the apricot tree and my dog had been commandeered to be my husband. I had him wearing a kerchief for a tie and I had to fix his breakfast so he could get to work. Sometime a little later Mother called me in and showed me a piece of white organdy that she thought would look nice pieced together with the blue. The bodice and upper skirt of the dress would be blue, and the sleeves, lower skirt and sash—full and tied in a bow in the back—would be white. I loved the plan and I had complete confidence that a very special dress would be mine to wear come Easter Sunday.

Now you may not be familiar with the fabric called polished cotton. In the 1950s, long before the days of polyester and spandex, a main concern in buying fabric was that it be guaranteed not to shrink and to be colorfast so it would not fade or bleed onto other items in the wash. The satiny finish of polished cotton was meant to add spice to décor items such as curtains and accent pillows, things that rarely needed to be washed. How the shiny blue remnant strayed into our fabric drawer remains a mystery to this day, and it’s no wonder that Mother didn’t know it wouldn’t be colorfast.

When she finally called me in to try the dress on, it was beautiful. I practically danced with joy, swishing the skirt and twirling in front of the mirror to see the wide bow at the back of the waist. I was ready for Easter, but Mother wasn’t. She worried that the fabric, after lying around for who knows how long, might not be clean, so she washed the dress.

Once again I was called in from my pursuit of the imaginary. Sitting at the sewing machine with tears in her eyes, Mother showed me how the dress had dried to a motley smear of blue and white patches. Nothing shiny was left. “I should have washed the fabric before I sewed it,” she cried. “Now there’s no way you can wear it.”

“Of course I can,” I exclaimed. “Really it looks fine, it’s just different. I love it and no one will care how it’s blue and white all over. It just doesn’t look like it used to!” I was determined to wear the dress because I wasn’t about to let Mother give up on it. She’d worked hard sewing it, and besides, there were very few occasions when I didn’t get my own way if I held out long enough. I’d keep the pressure up as long as I had to.

I should tell you that we attended the First Methodist Church in a small city some 20 miles from where we lived, even though gas money was tight. The church architecture was Greek Revival with wide sweeping front steps, a pillared entry, and curved mahogany pews inside. The rumble of the huge pipe organ thrilled Dad and gave Mother a headache, adding to the stress of her shyness, as she forced herself to be socially active. The church exemplified awe and contrasted sharply with our small community and its farms. So even though a mother’s love has very few boundaries, the faded dress represented a sizeable threat to Mother’s well-being. And she couldn’t exactly explain her fears to a seven year old.

Mother expected the women in the congregation to be nice about my blotchy dress while we were in the sanctuary, but she worried that they would start whispering, “Did you see the little McArthur girl’s dress?” when we all gathered in the church basement for coffee or juice and cookies. And then the next Sunday, and the next, the humiliating dress would be uppermost in their minds. There might even be smirks and giggles behind our backs.

I was too in love with the dress to even imagine what could be wrong with wearing it, so I did my best to change Mother’s mind. Day after day, I’d stop and pat the dress as it lay abandoned on the sewing machine and then I would pick it up and spin around with a sad look on my face. I took every chance I got to repeat how much I loved the dress until Mother finally said “Alright, but you can only wear it once.” And so it came be that I sat proudly in the front pew of the church with the other children in their store-bought Easter finery and sang “The Lord Has Risen Indeed,” believing that He had also given me a talented and wonderful mother.

Shortly after Easter the dress disappeared from my closet. When I asked Mother about it, she only shrugged. As you know, pride causes many hurt feelings and when the dress went missing, I began to rethink my actions. I felt ashamed and a little guilty. Before that Easter I never would have dreamed that a dress could cause so much heartache. I’d had my fun at Mother’s expense. As time went by, however, I thought of the dress as being something like Jacob’s coat of many colors and I reminded myself to remember how much trouble it had caused Jacob and his whole family. My dress had become a teaching on the hazards of being stubborn and demanding. How wonderful to learn the lesson of 1 Peter 5:5 Clothe yourself with humility as an unforgettable Easter message.

Margaret Koger lives in Boise, Idaho and received her M. A. from Boise State University. Before retirement, she taught in the public schools specializing in creative writing and library services. Her poetry appears in numerous journals including Tiny Seeds Literary Journal, Forbidden Peak, Déraciné and Gravitas. 

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