This entry is part 4 of 19 in the series Memoir

After I wrote about my grandmother and the sewing basket, it occurred to me that I had never told anyone that story. Not the Mathematician, not a therapist, nobody. Which means I am the only person who could tell it, because my parents and my grandmother are dead. Does this make it somehow worthy of telling? Ah yes, I’m looking for a way out.

Maybe I should tell you something neutral. Something not-so-awful. Thus my query to the keeper of memories, my subconscious: do I have to start with the really, really bad stuff?

It’s odd the way the subconscious seems to make decisions behind the scenes and then suddenly, without any apparent warning, opens a door and shoves something into the forefront. Because after I asked this question, I got a flash memory of my first communion dress.

Anybody who grows up Catholic — especially those who go to Catholic school — knows what a big deal the first communion is. For the kids there’s a whole week of preparation (or at least there was when I was seven) — including first confession, after which the sisters threw us a party with cake and icecream to celebrate our newly scrubbed and squeaky clean souls. And then the first communion itself. After that there’s supposed to be another party, this one at home. Hosted by your family.

I lived in fear of people coming to our door, people I knew, who would see all. But in this case, I didn’t have to worry much, because it would only be family, who were well aware of my mother’s habits. But there was still the matter of the dress.

Second grade girls like to play bride, and here was an opportunity to dress up in white, and make everybody watch. I was a kid who hid in the corner for the most part, so that had no appeal to me. I’d walk up the aisle in my white dress, because it was expected of me. The issue of how I’d get the dress was more complicated. I could ask my older sister, who had a couple years as a novitiate under her belt, but no money. My father wasn’t cheap with us, but the idea of him going shopping for a fancy dress, that was almost funny.

Chicago, 1963In this period of my life I have very few concrete memories of my mother, but my first communion dress outing is one of them. The day before the ceremony she emerged from the bedroom wearing makeup and heels, her hair a perfect helmet and announced we were going shopping. This is the only time I ever shopped with my mother, as far as I remember, and it was an experience so odd that I dreamed about it for years.

We ended up in a small storefront on Lincoln Avenue which seemed to be filled with round racks of nothing but communion dresses. One of those opportunistic shops that come up like mushrooms and fade away again.  There were maybe six mothers in that store with kids in tow but for some reason I remember the noise most of all: the squeak of the hangers as they were pushed back and forth, and the Lincoln Avenue traffic. — it was May and the door was propped open. But I don’t remember any conversation at all.

My mother started riffling through the dresses  with ruthless efficiency, her scarlet red lips pursed as she turned over labels and examined hems. Then she pulled out a dress and announced it to be The One.

What I remember about it is this: it cost thirty-five dollars, an amount that shocked and frightened me. I knew more about household finances than most seven year olds. I knew, for instance, that we paid a hundred dollars a month rent on the three bedroom flat above Byron’s Photography Studio (just around the corner from the first apartment, on Larchmont). I knew that the telephone bill came to about eight dollars a month. And here was my mother, spending thirty five dollars on a dress made in Italy, satin and lace, that I would wear only once.

It made no sense to me then, but as an adult I finally figured it out. My cousin Mary, the eldest daughter of my mother’s sister, said something that made it all fall into place.

“You know we thought you were rich,” she said. “You were always dressed like little princesses. Drove my mother nuts.”

Aunt Nancy had six kids, a rocky marriage, and a drinking habit somewhat less destructive than my mother’s.  She also had a deep and abiding hatred for her sister.  Sibling rivalry is not the right word for what went on between them. My mother was the elder, prettier of the two, and she tortured her sister for all their childhoods.  I understand aunt Nancy’s anger toward my mother because we experienced her in much the same way.  And there’s also the simple fact that Nancy, despite some very rough times, despite her dependence on alcohol, remained generous and loving, even toward the daughters of her despised sister.

My first communion was another way for my mother to sneer at her sister and twist the knife, this time by means of imported lace and satin.  We were strictly working class and I imagine my father was not happy about the cost of that dress, but to my mother it was worth making him mad to see her sister’s face. My guess is that only another drink could get the taste of bile out of aunt Nancy’s mouth. 

But none of that made an impression on me. My six cousins were there, wild and unruly and truly thrilling, the perfect buffer. The adults sat together eating and drinking in the other room  where children were not welcome. We ran around the neighborhood until  Uncle Jim loaded us all into his car and took us off to the Lincoln Park Zoo. By the time we got home again, my mother was passed out in the bedroom.

Aunt Nancy has been gone about five years now, but I think about her quite often and with great affection. I wish I could have talked to her as an adult, one woman to another, about my mother.  I think the sister she knew and the mother I knew were actually the same person, something that happens very rarely.

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