ELIZABETH M. KOHLER
WHEN I got home that afternoon from Christmas play rehearsal, momma was in the kitchen. I could hear her back there talking to someone real loud and I raced through the flat, dropping my books and hat on the telephone stand, where momma always tells me not to put them.
“Momma,” I called. “Momma!”
She was in the kitchen all right, standing in front of the oven. “Stop it,” she was saying. “Stop it this minute. You can’t do this to me. Now you stop it.” She was talking to the oven, and when she opened the door a crack a lot of smoke came pouring out and I saw the crackle of flame spitting inside.
She shook her head real hard until her hair came loose around her face and then she stamped her foot. Momma has little feet, but when she stamped her foot the fire in the oven went out. It was smoky in the kitchen for a long time and all during dinner momma and I coughed. The steak was burned but, as momma said, it was just round steak pounded with vegetable oil, so what could you expect. Momma couldn’t get used to cooking. After daddy died and Josefina left us, we moved from our house—now it belongs to Dr. Leland, who is a doctor just like daddy was—and momma has to do all our cooking.
She doesn’t like it, I know, but she pretends she does and one night she said, real seriously, while I was doing my homework, “Really, Charlotte,” she said, “a cookbook can be just as fascinating as a best seller. If you know how to read it.” She sighed then, a little, and laughed. “Rut I haven’t learned yet how to read.”
That night, though, after dinner, when I had washed the dishes and watered the ivy and taken down the garbage, I remembered what I’d wanted to tell her the minute I got home that afternoon, before the oven was on fire and the steak burned and we had to open a can of corned beef hash and poach eggs for dinner.
I was setting my books out to study, just a little bit of homework, some history and my French translation for the next day, and momma was sitting by the radio, sort of sprawled and comfortable-looking, while she listened to the carol broadcast, and I remembered what it was that was so important.
“Momma, momma, listen. They’re going to have a Christmas party after the play. At the country club. A real fancy party, with fruit punch and chicken patties, and place cards stuck on holly sprays, and toasts and dancing and everything. Miss Crandall’s going to arrange it and it’ll only cost, $1.50 each and I have
that much saved from taking care of Mrs. Lee’s baby last week, so I can go, can’t I?”
“A party?” Momma’s face wrinkled up in a grin. Momma loves parties but since daddy died she hasn’t been to very many. Just, sometimes, some of the ladies come for tea, but they don’t make momma very happy. She says they’re so saturated with pity that it oozes out of their pores.
“And, momma, Cathy and Mary and Denise are all going to get new dresses. They’re getting formais, and after rehearsal this afternoon we walked around downtown and, momma, I saw the most beautiful dress, with sort of a lowish square neck, and bows and a real full skirt. Oh, mom, it’s a dream of a dress!”
“Where’d you see it, pet?”
“At Temple’s. In the window. Oh, momma, I’d love to have that dress for the party.”
“Sure, mom. You know—you used to go there all the time.”
“1 know, dear,” she said. “Madame Temple and I are old friends.”
“Could we go down after school tomorrow and look at it?”
“All right, Charlotte, tomorrow after school.” And she picked up the silver vase and candlesticks and the candy dish and the silver urn. “I think I’ll polish the silver tonight while you’re studying; and then we’ll have some hot chocolate, and I bought two chocolate éclairs at the bakery this afternoon.”
She smiled at me and rumpled my hair before she went into the kitchen to polish the silver. Momma polishes silver like she
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The story of a daughter who yearned for a dream dress and a gallant mother who knew the meaning of sacrifice
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was brushing her teeth real hard after eating candy.
1DID my French first and I only had to look up two words: maniqué and baignoire. History’s easy and I like it. We were studying about the Thirty Years’ War and it was exciting. “The cost of the war was a tremendous burden on the people, impoverished as most of them were ...”
Impoverished as they were . . . My dress! My beautiful dress! I knew' how expensive Temple’s was. Even Denise doesn’t get her clothes there, and I was so ashamed of myself for taking it for
granted that if I wanted a dress from there momma would get it for me. My face got all hot and prickly like a heat rash. I stared around the room. It looked bare without the silver pieces from our old house to fill up the spaces, and daddy’s old leather chair crowded into a corner looked terribly empty.
I walked down the hall to the kitchen, slowdy, trying to think how I could tell momma to forget about the dress without hurting her feelings. She was so funny about our not having any money. She wouldn’t even let me drop out of Hilliard School. Said daddy had planned my education and, by golly, I was going to get it. And then, just before she got really mad at me for wanting to forget about college, she’d laughed and said didn’t I know I
was her investment in the future, and a well-educated investment paid better dividends. So I never said anything more about it, even when she took a part-time job at the hospital. She said she took the job to have something to do, because the apartment was so small it didn’t take more than a whistle to dust it, and I didn’t say anything.
She was sitting on the tall stool in front of the sink, polishing the silver like mad. Her face was shiny, and her eyelashes stuck out stiff and straight like she’d been crying, but she smiled at me and said, “All through, pet? So am I. Let’s have our hot chocolate.” She rinsed her hands under the faucet.
“Mom,” I said. I wanted to cry, she looked so tired.
“Put the water on, dear. You know, Charlotte, Pve been thinking. If you like that dress and get it, you could wear that green feather hat of mine. It wouldn’t look too old on you, or isn’t it the same shade?”
“No, mom. It’s just about the same shade. But, momma, I’ve been thinking, too, and I don’t need a new dress at all. If I got one of those big white linen collars at that shop down by the drugstore, it’d make my blue crepe like new.”
“Don’t you want that dress you were telling me about?”
“No, momma,” I lied. “I don’t want it. It’s too fussy, really, and besides,” I added in a rush, “Temple’s is too expensive. You remember how even daddy used to whistle at their bills? Oh, momma, what’s the matter? You got a headache?” Her face got all crumpled and soft so all the wrinkles showed.
“No, darling,” she said. “I don’t have a headache. Just a bit tired.” But she did have a headache, I could tell by the way she kept pinching the bridge of her nose, and then she said, “Darling, if you want that dress you’re going to have it. It doesn’t matter if it costs a great deal. Maybe we’ll eat beans for Christmas dinner but we can
make it.” She laughed and squeezed my arm. “Hurry up now with the hot chocolate.”
Momma was waiting for me when I came out of school with Denise and Mary the next afternoon. She was wearing her blue dress and I saw she’d sewed wide white cuffs on it.
“Golly, you look nice, mom,” I said. And she did too. Casual and smart like a picture in the magazines they have in beauty parlors.
“Hello, Mrs. Gaines.” Denise and Mary bobbed their heads at mother and then went on. They, were going to Smith’s for cokes.
“No rehearsal today?” Mother smiled at Miss Howard, our headmistress.
“No. Not till Thursday,” I told her. “Thursday’s dress rehearsal. Our costumes came today. Wait till you see them, mom. Just wait! And our programs came from the printers today and my name is on them. At the bottom, where all the credits are: Charlotte Gaines, Stage Manager.” Our class was giving Barrie’s “Quality Street.”
The bus was crowded with Christmas shoppers that afternoon and momma and I stood up side by side, holding onto the back of a seat where a real fat lady sat with her little boy. It was cold, but when we got off the bus, right in front of the London Hotel, momma looked like she’d been running, and her lipstick was pale.
“Here,” momma said and pulled me into the lobby of the hotel and we walked up to the mezzanine to the ladies’ lounge. And I combed my hair and straightened my skirt around my hips and momma put her lipstick on very carefully.
“There,” she said. “How do I look?”
“Swell, momma. Swell.” And she did. Smooth.as a butter bean. The j worn place on the cuff of her dress I didn’t show under the cuffs she’d sewed on. I tried to tell her again I didn’t need the new dress but she didn’t listen
very hard, so I followed her out of the hotel and down the street to Temple’s.
TEMPLE’S is a small place with glass windows that look as though there weren’t any windows at all. The windows were Christmasy in a frosty kind of way, with spun glass decorations and an artificial tree that shone all cold and silvery. And there was my dress, draped against black velvet.
“See, momma, see?” I was getting excited about the dress all over again, and most of me had forgotten how we didn’t have any money since daddy died to buy dresses at Temple’s.
“Well, in we go.” Momma lifted her chin, jauntylike, and pushed open the door that was all heavy glass except for a thin band of silver metal binding it.
It was warm and dark inside and for a minute I couldn’t see anything until a woman walked toward us. She walked funny, with stiff legs, and I felt like giggling behind momma’s back.
“Yes, moddom? May I be of assistance?” And then behind her came another lady dressed all in black like the first one except for a deep green clip at the neck of her dress. When she saw momma her face was all smiley.
“Mrs. Gaines! Such a long time we haven’t seen you. It is all right, Marie, I will serve Mrs. Gaines myself. It is good to see you.” She had an accent like Mamzelle at school. Then she smiled at me. “This is not your enfant. It could not be. She is such a young lady.”
“Yes,” momma said. “She is a young lady, Madame, and she’s looking for a dress. The Dress!” Momma laughed her grown-up laugh, not the laugh she has when we go to a neighborhood movie.
“Mais oui, and why not? Ici. Rest here and we will show you.”
The chairs were small and gold and the seats were hard. At Temple’s they do not have dresses hanging on racks so you can look at them, like they do at Wilton’s. They just have a grey carpet and little chairs, and coffee tables with j ash trays and blooming plants.
“She has her heart set on the formal j in the window,” momma told Madame.
“Why not? It is a charming frock j for la jeune fille. I will bring it.”
Momma dug in her pocketbook and I brought out the silver cigarette case ! daddy’d given her for Christmas two j years ago.
“I haven’t been here in ages,” she said, tapping the end of a cigarette against the case. “It hasn’t changed at all. Madame Temple is just the same.”
; She flicked the lighter into flame.
Madame carried the dress from the ¡ window very carefully and held it out Í so we could see it. Momma fingered it j and looked at the depth of the hem. “That is important,” she told Madame, “with a growing girl.”
“You are lucky,” Madame told me. “It is your size, I should think, exactly. And, of course, we have no other like it.”
Momma glanced casually at the ! label and examined the seams. She I didn’t seem to notice the little white j tag.
“Mamzelle should try it on, n'estce pas?”
“I think so and then we can see.” Momma sat back to wait while I followed Madame into the dressing rooms. I wras glad I’d worn my satin slip with the lace that day and stockings instead of bobby socks.
“Your mother,” Madame said, holding the dress like a hoop over my hair, j “she is a wonderful woman.” I nodded I my head vigorously inside the tent I the dress made as it slipped over my ! head.
‘She sure is. She’s swell.”
Madame shook the skirt out until it fell naturally, gracefully. Golly, I thought, I almost don’t have any hips. It was perfect. Absolutely perfect. Won’t Denise be jealous when she sees me in this, I thought, and then I saw the little white ticket had fallen on the floor and I bent down to pick it up. It was printed with black ink, a lot of figures written together and then I saw the price very neatly printed at the bottom. I was sure Madame could hear my heart pounding, and in the mirror I could see my face sort of pale and green.
“It feels a little tight at the waist.”
“But non!” Madame said, and smoothed the material down. “It is the perfect fitting.”
I followed her out to where momma was waiting, my stomach feeling empty, as though it had forgotten the two hot dogs I’d had for lunch.
“Mmmmm,” said momma. “Turn around, dear.”
I turned slowly, letting my fingers touch the heavy material lightly. Two months’ rent. That’s what the dress cost. I looked at momma over my shoulder. She sat forward in her chair, her fingers pressing the bridge of her nose as though she had another one of her headaches. In the dark light of the shop her face was gardenia white and her eyes were shadowed.
“Like it, pet?”
“Oh, yes,” I answered weakly. “Very much. Except it feels uncomfortable across my tummy.”
“It does? Well, it’s very nice, of course, and most becoming, but if it doesn’t fit comfortably it won’t do, will it?”
Madame adjusted the waist again and clucked like a hen.
“I do not understand,” she said. “It is a most beautiful fit. See, Mrs. Gaines?”
“Well, Charlotte,” momma said lazily, as if she didn’t care at all, “what do you think?”
“I don’t know, momma. I don’t know.” And now the dress felt heavy and stiff, and it itched but I didn’t dare scratch. I walked away from them to where a mirror stood and I stared at the dress. I didn’t like lying about the dress. It was perfect, and I knew it, and I knew they knew it, but golly, two months’ rent! I walked back to where momma was talking to Madame, her voice light and a little sharp.
“You know, dear,” she turned halfway in her chair to look at me. “That dress is quite similar to your red velvet. Do you think you should have two the same style?”
I GAPED at momma. My red velvet is years old, and I can’t wear it any more because it is too small, and anyway it’s an entirely different style, with a high neck and a collar.
“But if you w'ant it,” she continued, “we’ll take it. It’s really very becoming.”
Madame watched me, her round black eyes like two raisins in a sugar cookie.
“I don’t want it,” I blurted out. “I don’t want it, really, momma.”
“Mon Dieu!” Madame’s voice exploded but then she shrugged her shoulders and said, “Something else perhaps. There is a blue wool, very soft, very charming for la jeune fille.” “Well,” momma glanced down at her watch, “thank you, Madame, but it’s getting late and I promised Charlotte we’d have tea at the Ambassador this afternoon. Maybe later this week, when we have longer to look. Charlotte’s difficult to please but most girls her age are, don’t you think?”
“Mais oui,” and Madame followed
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me back to the dressing room.
“I’m sorry,” I told her as I buttoned my blouse. “I really liked the dress and the color, but I didn’t feel comfortable in it. It scratched. I’m sorry we took up so much of your time.”
“That is all right.” Her eyes twinkled at me then. “It is a pleasure to have your mother stop in our salon again.”
Madame walked with us to the door.
“Thank you, Madame,” momma said. “I’m sorry Charlotte wasn’t satisfied with the frock. It was very charming.”
“A pleasure,” Madame insisted. “A pleasure. When you come back we will have something very special for Mamzelle and also for you, Madame. You should not wear so much of the dark colors.” And momma and I
sauntered out of the shop. 1 was so nervous I was blushing, and momma looked cool and sort of proud. Maybe she hadn’t known how much the dress cost and was mad at me for dragging her in there and then being childish about taking the dress when she said I could have it. And then she took my arm and said, “To the Ambassador, chicken.”
“Oh, no, momma.”
“Oh, yes,” said momma. “To the Ambassador for high tea.”
“But, momma, they charge so much. Nearly a dollar each just for tea and a few cakes. Let’s go to Horton’s. They have swell hot-fudge sundaes for only 20 cents.”
Then momma started laughing, right out loud on the street. She laughed the way she does at Boh Hope. “Oh, Charlotte, you should have seen your-
self when you came out with that dress on. Your face was a pale pistachio, so I knew you’d seen the price tag.”
“Had you seen it?”
“Of course, darling. Why else do you think 1 did such a Dick Tracy act on the seams. I’ve gone to that shop for years; 1 know they have beautiful workmanship.”
“But if you knew, why did you let me try it on?”
“Because, darling, I thought if you had your heart set on it we’d manage somehow, even if we had to float a loan. I should have had more faith in your judgment. I’m really rather proud of you in a backward sort of way.”
“Oh, mom.” My throat was all stuffed full of cottony frogs.
“To the Ambassador?” she asked.
“To the Ambassador,” I said.