Pearls and a Blue Dress
With a whoosh of the glass door, I stepped into the shining world of Nordstrom, wincing at the beauty and light as if I were a miner emerging from the depths. Twinkling garlands and shiny balls of air-thin glass hung in testament to Christmas past. Strains of piano and stringed instruments floated from unseen speakers as I rotated, disoriented, searching for angular mannequins, one of which would be clad in the dress I’d wear for my mother’s funeral.
What is the proper attire for such a funeral? A new dress? A plain one? A thrifty purchase, which would have delighted my mom?
Even at age fifty, shopping for clothes always bludgeoned my self-esteem. Wrapping myself in clothing that looked elegant and smooth on the hanger but bunchy and off-kilter on me made me feel like an alien. And the import of the event made success feel even more improbable. I decided to bypass my usual suppliers – Ross Dress-for-Less and Target – in hopes of finding salespeople who specialized in aiding the fashion-challenged.
So I plugged “Nordstrom” into the GPS and drove forty miles, hoping to complete this dreaded task in just one stop. I parked in the multi-level garage, and entered the store without stepping into the light of the day.
The escalator transported me to the world of women’s dresses, and I wandered the department, not sure what to look for. But my feet had a mind of their own, turning me away from shiny fabric, from plunging necklines, and from garments above the knee. Bright colors, clinging cuts, sparkles and shimmers – I turned from those, too. What was left? How could I find something that fit, but would also allow me to melt, to dissolve, to fade unnoticed into the church pew, into the wall, into the carpet, into the backdrop of sky? Mom was dead. No dress could feel more striking, more prominent, more real than that. Where was the rack of bland, flat, silent, and invisible?
A trim woman several years older than I stepped briskly toward me. She had excellent posture, a tailored green jacket, and dark hair cut short to frame her perfectly-made-up face. Her skin was smooth, and she had a still-firm jawline. She looked nothing like my mother.
“Can I help you find something?” she asked.
With both hands, I pushed back my straggling hair which was falling out of its tired pony tail and tickling my face.
“My mother just died, and I need a dress for the funeral.” My voice sounded loud in my ears; I hadn’t spoken in hours.
Her eyebrows curved into concern, and I panicked. Please don’t hug me, please, no. Warmth would crack my protective shell and expose me, raw and vulnerable.
“Is there a color or style that you’re looking for?”
Relieved, I continued.
“I don’t know how to dress myself. And I’m giving the eulogy.”
Her shoulders squared, her chin lifted, and her head assumed a confident tilt.
“You’ll need to be comfortable, and you don’t want to feel self-conscious.” She strode over to a circular rack, and I jumped, grateful to have someone to follow.
She held up a brown tweedy garment with short sleeves and a wide brown belt. Perhaps she heard me thinking: My chest will look huge in that. I’ll be tugging at it all day. She replaced that one and grabbed a few more, each of which I rejected with a sad, confused shake of my head.
Then she brightened and said, “I know the dress for you.”
I waited among the soft folds of fabric, my breathing shallow. As if inhaling only a little could make Mom feel less dead.
The saleswoman returned with an armful of blue. The few dresses in my closet were all related to each other, sleeveless cotton shifts in dark shades sprinkled with flowers. This dress was not in that family. It was a solid blue knit that was neither bright nor drab, neither long nor short. It had three-quarter-length sleeves, and was sewn together in strips that were irregularly horizontal, crisscrossing the body at different angles. It was a grown-up’s dress. Because my mother was dead.
The saleswoman led me to the dressing room, and shut me inside. I set down my purse, with the fleeting thought that it was a grown-up thing, carrying a purse. Does everyone feel like a kid masquerading as an adult, or only me?
Pulling the dress over my head, I turned to the mirror. My winter-white legs glared above my green bobby socks. The dress hugged me, but no body parts fought against it. The horizontalish seams meandering across the front had a distracting effect, evening out my bulges. The dress was comfortable, and I didn’t look awful.
“How is it?” she called through the door.
“Can you tell me what you think? Is it too tight?”
She popped her head in, and nodded briskly. “Oh, no, it’s perfect.”
“What kind of shoes should I wear with it?” I gestured toward my shabby tennis shoes in the corner as if to say, Clearly, I do not understand shoes.
“Oh, a simple pump is fine.”
Couldn’t she see me pleading with my eyes?
“But – what color?”
“A plain black shoe is good, even if you don’t have one with a heel. The dress is basic, so you’ll want a shoe that’s basic, too.”
“What about nylons? Should I wear nylons? I know sometimes people don’t wear nylons…”
She took in my mottled white legs, and said, “Get some dark hose, sheer black or deep tan. And a foundation garment. You won’t want the panty lines or waistband to show, and that dress will show those.”
Her clarity was helpful. My need for guidance was primal.
“I have a Spanx thing. Is that what you mean?” I craned my neck to check out my butt in the mirror.
She nodded, showing no surprise. “All you’ll need is a string of pearls, and you’re done. Very simple.”
Gratitude and relief washed over me in waves as I contorted to unzip the blue knit. She closed the door, leaving me alone.
I had a vague recollection of having seen Mom’s pearls in one of the boxes that had ended up in my house when we’d moved her into assisted living. I realized that I could wear them to deliver Mom’s eulogy before I passed the pearls on to one of my sisters.
A few minutes later, carrying a plain blue dress and two packs of ridiculously over-priced black nylons, I walked out of Nordstrom’s, leaving behind brightness and warmth and shining tinsel and the kind woman. I knew I’d never return.
Mom had other necklaces when I was young, but the string of pearls is all that I can still see her wearing. Does every little girl think that her mother is beautiful? Mom had laughing eyes, so large and soft brown, and her smile was easy, igniting her entire face. I’d watch her sketch her eyebrows on with a smudgy pencil, and draw her mouth a reddish-pink, pressing her lips together in a kiss.
She’d set her hair in hard plastic rollers, securing them with bobby pins short and long. Over her curler-covered head she’d place the bubble-cap of the hairdryer, snapping in place the accordion hose for the hot air. Once Mom’s hair was dry, with her cheeks pink and little wisps of hair slipping free, she’d pull out the pins and toss the plastic tubes into the bottom half of an old Clorox jug. During the only summer my sister ever went to camp, Jan had glued black rick-rack onto the jug’s plaid fabric hat, and added felt eyebrows, a mouth, and a drawstring, transforming the jug into a holder for hair-curlers. With Mom’s head now covered in soft loops of brown, she would stretch out each coil, teasing a few hairs at a time, until each curl had become a puffy tangle. More brushing and shaping, until finally the process had produced an airy brown hair-balloon that was lacquered in place with Aqua Net hairspray. I’d graze my palm against the thin shell of stiffness, and marvel at how it bounced back into place.
The pearls were missing. Had I stashed them someplace for safe-keeping? I tore through the wooden jewelry box from my childhood, the one with the broken hinge and satiny cushion inside. It said “Nice” and had been given to me by Auntie Lillian. When I was nine, I’d learned that Nice was in France, a country my aunt had never visited.
I ran up to the attic, pawing through boxes of Mom and Dad’s wedding china and their old photo albums, the tiny stick-on photo-corners sprinkling onto the floor, bits of sad confetti. In the attic sewing room, I flung aside pillows and quilting scraps and my tubes of acrylic paint. I reached both hands under the American flag that we’d gotten at Dad’s funeral, the government’s acknowledgement that one more veteran of the 1940s was gone. Placing it carefully aside – if it came unfolded, I’d never get it back into its crisp military triangle – I reached for Mom’s black varnished jewelry box with the rotating Japanese geisha. She wore a shiny red kimono trimmed in gold. The pearls must have been in there when I’d seen them. I slipped open the red-felt-lined drawers, and pulled open the glass door that used to set the geisha spinning around and around to "Für Elise".
When I was little, I’d tiptoe into my parents’ bedroom at the end of the hallway, and gaze at the dancer. The jewelry box was a miniature chest of drawers, perfect and fancy, and I’d reach underneath for the gold key. Twisting my hand carefully so as not to break the spell, I’d wind it up. The melancholy tune made me ache, the notes tinkling ever more slowly as the dancer twirled and spun, so graceful. Until finally she stopped, mid-spin. I’d tiptoe out, unseen.
But Mom’s pearls weren’t there either. The drawers contained only some rhinestone clip-on earrings, and a tarnished cross. I thought I’d seen Dad’s wedding ring in there before, but maybe it had been buried with him. Or wait – had we pulled it out to be buried with Mom? How could I forget which? Something that important?
It was no use. The pearls were gone. I’d have to tell my sisters.
I felt a panicky urge to scream. Instantly, I was back to being a kid, the screw-up.
In elementary school, I fell on the pebbly asphalt so frequently that I considered myself a special friend of the school secretary, who never lost patience as she plucked bits of gravel from my shredded knees. My mom never handed me a dish without saying “Don’t drop it!” When I was eight, my parents enrolled me in a Saturday morning “movement class”, explaining that I needed it because I was so uncoordinated. I didn’t even know what the word meant. Before school each morning, Mom and my two sisters and brother waited in the station wagon, until finally I’d stumble down the front steps, clutching a white oxford uniform shoe in each hand. I dropped and splintered Mom’s antique guitar, and forgot to mail my college application by the due date even though it was complete. I once lost a shoe – just one – at school. I lost my parents’ credit card without ever using it.
The pearls were gone.
Three years earlier, on the way to Dad’s rosary before his funeral, I’d crashed Mom’s car on a Vallejo freeway. Mom needed to stop driving anyway, so my sisters and brother weren’t upset when I told them I’d totaled the Nissan. Nan even said, “You made it easy. Thanks for taking one for the team.” But this time, I’d let my team down. Mom’s pearls. How had I lost them?
I wasn’t even sure I’d had them, but I was certain that it was my fault they were gone.
On the morning of Mom’s funeral, I put on the blue dress and asked my husband to clasp around my neck the stand-in for the missing pearls, a thin gold chain with a small religious medal. At least it was something religious; Mom had been such a devout Catholic. It had been given to me by my Italian great aunt. Or maybe it had been my grandmother’s, and my own aunt, Lillian, had passed it on to me. How could I forget that, too? And now there’s no one left I could ask.
But though it helped to break up that solid blue expanse below the neckline, it felt wrong to wear it. It wasn’t even from my mom’s side of the family; it had belonged to the Italian side, my dad’s. But I had failed to keep the pearls safe. So it was all I had.
When I looked in the mirror on the morning of my mother’s funeral, I saw a middle-aged woman in a simple dress. A woman who wore her hair too young for her fifty years, a woman in heeled brown sandals because shopping for black pumps had felt too hard. And when I looked beyond the graying hair and the thickening middle and the loosening skin, I saw myself – an impostor playing grown-up, too young to be fifty, too young to be bidding good-bye to her mother.
Everyone said that the eulogy was beautiful. Only a small part of me delivered it. Most of me was floating someplace above the church, out the door, with arms reaching toward the sky, through the air that my mom used to breathe. Just the tiniest part of me was in that cold building, penetrated by the sharp scent of incense and loss, tethered to the podium by my husband’s hand resting on the small of my back, and the weight of the blue knit dress.
Since the day of my mom’s funeral, the dress has been pressed into service just once. It was my brother-in-law’s wedding, and the dress seemed just sophisticated enough, with its three-quarter-length sleeves and criss-crossy strips. But though it fit me perfectly and was comfortable and appropriately grown up, it just felt like the dress from my mother’s funeral.
So it hangs in my closet, shrouded in white plastic. Sometimes I think about giving it to Goodwill, but I can’t; it’s a thread still connecting me to my mom. I never found the pearls. The black lacquered jewelry box still sits on the attic floor, with the tiny geisha in the red-and-gold kimono, poised just inside the little door that no longer closes. When I turn the key and watch her spin round and round, the tinkling music slows with every note, until finally the geisha is frozen, mid-step. And then her dance is done.
About the Author: Sue Granzella has an uncanny ability to find dogs with 'issues' when adopting from animal shelters. She teaches third grade in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her award-winning work appears in Citron Review, Hippocampus, Lowestoft Chronicle, Ascent, Prick of the Spindle, Red Savina Review, and Crunchable, among others. Sue loves baseball, stand-up comedy, hiking, road trips, and reading the writing of 8- and 9-year-olds. Find more of her writing at here.