The Wedding Dress
by Anne Riley, Author
For those of you who have read my monthly articles posted here at the Women Who Rise website, you know by now that I’m a minimalist. That’s just a nice way of saying I don’t like stuff. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like all stuff. This is a story of one very special thing in my life. And in honor of the month of love, it is also happens to be a love story . . .
The Wedding Dress
When World War II broke out, my parents were freshmen at Seattle College in Washington state. My Dad, Gene, met my mom, Cay, during a rainy weekend hiking club event. He finagled his way into driving the club truck back to campus when he discovered it was her turn to ride shotgun. It was a classic tale. They became best of friends. They grew inseparable. They fell in love.
The war loomed and no one, not even young people in love, could ignore it. Early in 1943, Gene joined the military. He became a pilot in the Army Air Forces and began extensive training in Texas. Though he and Cay were in love, and, as they laughed at the time, “engaged to be engaged,” they decided against marriage before the war. “I don’t know what will happen,” Gene told Cay. “I can’t leave you with any burdens.”
Cay missed Gene something fierce. Though they wrote letters frequently, it was often weeks before one would arrive, and it was clear it had been read by Army censors. Phone calls were even more rare. I know for a fact that my parents wrote many letters because I saw boxes and boxes of them in the attic when I was young. To this very day, my 91-year-old mother keeps a small stack of “special letters” by her bedside. The time apart did nothing to dim their desire to be together. In fact, their love just grew with each passing day.
Gene’s parents, I knew them as Nana and Umpie, invited Cay, Cay’s father, and her sister Marie to Thanksgiving dinner in November of 1943. It was the first real holiday with Gene away from home, and Cay was delighted to share this time with her future in-laws. It was as close as she could get to actually being with Gene.
After dinner, as the two families sat around the fire, Joe, Gene’s oldest brother, cleared his throat. “I have something special to announce,” he said. From his pocket, he pulled out a small box. “I am standing in for Gene, as he cannot be here. He wants you to have this ring. He wants you to wear it so that everyone will know that the two of you are officially engaged. Congratulations.” And then he presented Cay with a lovely diamond engagement ring. Cay was never more surprised in her life.
If you ask Cay, I am not sure she will be able to tell you which moved her more, the fact that Gene painstakingly saved his money for months, paycheck by paycheck, to buy her that engagement ring, or that her future scientist husband so painstakingly worked out the logistics of the event: The letter from a younger brother asking his eldest brother to stand in for him. The money being sent with specific instructions to buy the perfect ring. The idea that the man she loved, though far away and probably in more danger than he would ever admit to, had orchestrated a way to do things “right.” I do know this though; this memory warms my mom’s heart to this very day.
Gene shipped over to England in late 1944. He flew B-17s over mainland Europe. He was pretty busy, as you can imagine. By the time victory came to Europe in May of 1945, Gene had flown 31 missions over the skies of Europe. The good news, he was still alive. The bad news, a pilot was required to fly 32 missions before he could be discharged and return home. His crew was reassigned to an airbase near Marseilles, France for another six months. From there, they flew back and forth to Casablanca, ferrying officers who were being transported from Europe to the Pacific theater.
Even though they weren’t together yet, Gene and Cay now had a target date for his discharge from the Army. He hoped to be home by Christmas Day, 1945. They planned to be married as soon as possible after his arrival.
Now that a wedding was becoming more reality than dream, Cay began to worry she would not have a proper dress to wear. Even with the war approaching its end, there was no silk available. Because of its strength, silk was the preferred fabric for parachutes and had been rationed for years. By 1945, it was just not available stateside. Gene thought of sending his own parachute to Cay, but unfortunately, as he was still flying planes, he needed it. So, he did the next best thing. He and Pete, a fellow crew member, visited a military warehouse where they “found” an unused parachute that was in good shape. They split it down the middle, and each fellow sent half to his respective girl. Cay would have a silk wedding dress after all.
Cay picked out a McCall’s pattern and arranged for the gown to be made by a local dressmaker. If you ask me, it suits her. The dress is beautiful and elegant and classic. But when she put it on that first time and looked at her reflection in the mirror, all she was thinking about was the man she was going to marry.
The wedding planning went about as well as possible, given that no one knew exactly when the groom would show up. Gene arrived home just in time to ring in the New Year, on January 1, 1946. Now that was a homecoming! It took a few weeks to be formally discharged from the military. By then, thousands of GIs were coming home, and there was quite the bottleneck as they all attempted to be discharged at the same time.
Next came the bureaucratic whyfores and wheretos. Gene and Cay needed to gather birth certificates and baptismal certificates, take marriage classes, and have the wedding banns read three weeks in a row at the local Catholic Church. Then there was the small matter of finding a place to live. With all the returning veterans, there were no apartments available in the Seattle area.
Scheduling was a challenge. They wanted to be married before March 1st, when the new term began at Seattle College. Gene planned to re-enroll and finish the degree that he left midstream three years earlier. And Lent was coming. In the Catholic Church in those days, the Church didn’t perform weddings during the forty days before Easter. Neither of them wanted to wait another forty minutes, much less forty days, to be married. That narrowed the window to February.
The church wasn’t available any Saturday in February. Even if it were, the priest that Gene and Cay asked to preside over their wedding ceremony, and who also happened to be a chemistry professor teaching a full load of classes, didn’t have much time to spare.
Obstacles schmobstacles. None of them mattered. Gene and Cay just wanted to get married. They knocked down each problem as it came up. And indeed, order soon emerged from the chaos. Documents were found and delivered. The banns were read and no one objected to the upcoming nuptials. A lucky conversation between Cay and the sacristarian at church led to a rented room with kitchen and bathroom privileges. The priest penciled in their wedding date between grading papers and preparing for Organic Chemistry class. Gene was enrolled in school. Cay, now graduated, found a job as a secretary at the college. Oh, yes, and the dress was finished and just waiting to be worn.
Gene and Cay were married during the 8:15 am mass on Tuesday morning, February 19, 1946. The dress of course, was gorgeous. I am not sure my Dad noticed, though. He was just looking at the girl wearing it.
After the wedding, my parents jumped into their new lives with the sense of renewed energy that came with reprieve from war. My Dad became a nuclear scientist. My Mom became her own version of a military commander. This statement makes sense when you learn that they had twelve children. I am number eleven.
The wedding dress stayed in the closet, snugly wrapped in a heavy-duty garment bag next to Dad’s military uniform. When I was young, my little sister Eileen and I would sneak into the bedroom, carefully unzip the bag, and peek at both the dress and the uniform. They are forever tied together in my mind.
In 1981, I became engaged to Tim, my wonderful husband. My story isn’t nearly as amazing as my parents,’ but it has its own charm. We were high school sweethearts and went to different colleges. Like my parents, we wrote letters every day and we couldn’t wait to get out of college to get married. But there the similarity ends. Neither Tim nor I carry the romance gene. His proposal went something like this: The summer before our senior year in college, Tim opened up the calendar and picked out a Saturday a few months after our expected college graduation dates the following May. “This looks like a good day,” he said. And that was that. It must be noted that I thought this was a perfectly wonderful proposal.
Once our engagement was official, the wedding planning wheels began to take a serious turn. Being in the early stages of minimalism even then, I was less concerned about the wedding than actually being married. Except for one thing. The dress. I have five sisters, and by that time, four of them were married, yet none of them had worn my Mom’s wedding dress. Maybe it wasn’t allowed, I wondered. Since I thought that dress was the most beautiful thing in the world, I risked the unspoken taboo and asked anyway. “Mom, would it be okay if I wore your wedding dress?”
“Of course,” Mom smiled. “Won’t that be nice?”
And it was. And though I was five-feet-six and Mom was only five-feet-two, the dress somehow fit perfectly.
On my wedding day, I dressed in the basement of the country church, which Tim attended as a child. When I was ready, I went upstairs to the back of the church where my Dad was waiting to walk me down the aisle. He turned around and stopped suddenly, a look halfway between shock and surprise on his face. Then he gave his sweet Dad-chuckle and said, “Annie, you look just like your mother.” I swore there was a glisten in his eye, and I realized that for just a fleeting moment, he was transported back in time to that day, thirty-five years earlier, when he was married. That moment remains one of the most precious of my life.
Tim and I, as my parents before us, jumped into our new life in Oregon with the enthusiasm of the young. Tim was an engineer, and I worked as an accountant. Within four years, we had three lovely children, Jim, Celeste and Erin. I know I’m a slacker, and that this is only one quarter of my parents’ family output level, but I hereby publicly state that my mother is awesome and that I am not in her league.
The lovely wedding dress, fresh with new memories, remained with my mother, in her closet, once again snuggled next to my Dad’s uniform.
Now, we must fast-forward to 2011. My lovely daughter Celeste, all grown up and now a newly minted PhD in bio-engineering, is engaged to Greg, a newly minted PhD in astrochemistry. I’m not sure exactly where they fit on the “romance” scale. Mothers do not discuss these matters with their daughters. But I do know they met on the basketball court outside the dorm on the Oregon State campus. And I do know Celeste is a really good three-point shooter. She has been known to impress a boy or two with that shot. I think this is romantic, but as we have already established, that is not saying much.
As her own wedding planning proceeded, Celeste could not seem to find the right dress. One day on the phone, she described what she was looking for: classic, elegant, simple. Even I could put these fashion dots together. “Let me send you a few pictures of the dress I wore,” I said.
Of course, she loved it. “It’s just what I am looking for.”
And so, we asked her grandmother. “Would it be okay if Celeste wore your dress?” I asked when I talked to my Mom on the phone a short time later.
“Would it?” Grandma said, and I could hear her smile across all those miles of the phone line. “It would be wonderful.”
Now, there were a few coordination issues to work out. Just getting the dress to Celeste was a challenge. Celeste lived in Arizona, Tim and I lived in Oregon, and my mom and dad lived in Illinois. It’s not the kind of thing you just put in the mail and trust to the US Postal Service. However, in the summer of 2010, we were all together for a family reunion. One evening while we were visiting at my sister’s home, Mom brought out a large package. Inside was the dress; along with a picture of my parents on their wedding day, the black and white tone giving away its age; and a lovely note from a grandmother to her granddaughter.
Then there was the height issue. Celeste is five foot ten and has the broad shoulders of an athlete. As I mentioned, my Mom is a petite five-feet-two. But Celeste had the good sense to marry a nice young man whose mother is a talented seamstress. Greg’s mom, Carolyn, worked magic with the dress, altering it to fit Celeste’s tall frame while making it a testament to its history and still ageless enough to rock a new century.
Celeste and Greg were married in an outdoor ceremony on a warm, sunny afternoon in Lawson, Missouri. Before she and Greg walked from their cabin to the ceremony, they stopped for a special visit with my mom and dad. I’ve enclosed the picture with this story because sometimes there are just no words that can do a moment justice. You’ll understand when you see it. It remains one of my favorite photos of all time. However, it does make me cry.
When Tim and I walked Celeste down the aisle, I had a clear view of my mom and dad as they watched the ceremony unfold. They sat in the front row, holding each other’s hands and smiling. I like to think they were picturing that day, many years ago, when they were young and starting on the path that their grandchild was now beginning. The day was different. They were married on a rainy Tuesday morning in February. Celeste and Greg were being married on an unseasonably warm evening in October. The times were different. Sixty-five years had passed since that dress was first worn. And yet, that dress . . . it seemed to bind together the most important things about life, a silken link between generations, at once timeless and beautiful and strong.
Later that evening at the reception, my parents danced. There they were, Mom’s eyes sparkling and laughing, Dad giving his usual grin as he twirled her around. All these years later, I don’t think they’ve changed much!
The dress is carefully stored away again. Perhaps waiting for a new adventure? It is not for me to say. But I thought this a particularly nice time to tell this story. Why? Because in a couple of weeks, on February 19, 2014, my parents will celebrate their 68th anniversary. Sixty-eight years of generous, happy, wonderful love.
As you might understand, at 91 years old, my parents have slowed down a bit. They are more frail as each year passes. They cannot do some of the things they used to do. I visited them just last month, during a bitter cold Midwest January. And once again, I discovered they still have lessons to teach me.
They do not focus on isn’t and can’t and was. They stay by each other’s side and enjoy each other’s company and live as if they were still young. They are connected in a way that makes their union stronger than each of them is alone. They soak in each moment as if it will last forever.
Maybe there is some magic in that dress. Maybe there was something about the strength of my parents’ love that was passed along, hidden in the silken strands of that gown. Tim and I, despite our romance-less natures, share that same sense of companionship and appreciation for the little moments that mean so much. Even after thirty years of marriage and three children, there is a part of us that still feels young, at least to each other. And Celeste and Greg? Well, they are young, so I’ll give them a pass on that test. But I see the magic in them too. That partnership. That connection. That synergy where the two of them create something neither of them could create by themselves. Yes, maybe that dress has something special . . .
I always like to end these stories with a hope and a wish for you. The same is true now, but this time I am adding a request. During this month of valentines, my hope is that you will find such love in your life. And that once you find it, you will nurture it and build it and shape it into that flexible steel that is often needed to handle the vagaries of life.
As for the request, it’s a simple one. Please join me in wishing my parents a very happy anniversary. Well done, my sweet, wonderful parents. Well done.