by Kate Farrell
In the stormy spring of my third grade year, the wind and rain often battered our house, perched as it was on the beach. Our screened back porch, raised up on spindly legs that sprouted from the sand, faced the Gulf of Mexico. From there I could see the looming advances of dark clouds and hear the first splattering of rain drops on our tin roof. Scampering down the steep staircase to the sand below, I could run in the rain to the sea wall and watch the foaming surf, safe from its grasp.
While the backside of our house was exposed to a wilderness of elements, our front porch opened right onto Main Street, at the bustling center of the small town of Pass Christian, Mississippi, in the late 1940s. My Catholic school was a skip and a hop across the street and so was the church, a general store, shoe store, grocer, and a movie theater. The street was always filled with a rush of traffic, since it was also the highway running straight through town on its way to New Orleans or Mobile.
Our family had a shop in our house, my mother’s, called Southern Women’s Exchange, with its painted wooden sign proudly hung from a front room window. Filled with “look, but don’t touch” delights, our parlor displayed fancy Creole dolls, quilts, embroidered hankies, and delicate hand painted buttons. Among the homemade pralines and postcards were items my mother had sewn, aprons, potholders in colorful prints and rickrack. Much later she told me that of all her life achievements, running this quaint store with its local crafts had given her the most pleasure.
Though little of the “Pass,” as we called it, remains, falling victim to the full force of hurricanes Camille and Katrina, my mother held our few years there even more precious. It was a simple life back then, right after World War II, charming with French Creole culture, shrimp boats blessed by the priests at the start of the season, and the welcoming townspeople. A petite, energetic woman, my mother could walk everywhere and find her place with home and work, family and school, all within arms’ reach. Though we were poor, so was most everyone else.
That spring, as the long days of Lent came to a close, I began to think of Easter when everyone would wear Sunday best clothes to church. One afternoon, my mother and I went shopping for a dress pattern at the general store where I picked out a Vogue pattern for an elaborate dress. Printed on the pattern envelope was a sketch of a girl with long curls, wearing a pink dress with flounces at the hem. There were pink ruffles all around a lace yoke, edged with a black velvet ribbon that was woven through the lace. It was a fantasy dress, beautiful and frilly. I squeezed the fat envelope in my hands as my mother paid the salesclerk 25 cents.
But a tissue paper pattern was hardly a dress.
“We’ll see what we can do….” my mother sighed, her voice trailing off.
The image of the longhaired girl with the finger curls, shiny black shoes, and straw hat in that perfect pink dress lingered in my girlish dreams, but I knew better. My mother would rummage in her sewing basket and find some fabric left over from the aprons or the potholders. My dress would be bright and well made, but not that confection of pink and white lace. I just knew.
One day when I came home from school, I heard the whirring sound of the sewing machine. My mother was bent over the machine, seeming to sew in a furious rush.
She stopped, exclaiming, “It’s done!” She was beaming with mischief. “Surprise!” she cried.
And she whisked her work from the machine and held it up to my unbelieving eyes. It was the dress, the pink dress with the lacy yolk and the black velvet ribbon.
“Mommy, how did you do this so fast?”
“I sewed all day, every minute, to have this finished before you came home.”
My eyes filled with tears and amazement. We hugged each other, the dress flattened between us.
“Try it on–try it on,” she urged.
Of course, it was just right. There was a sash and a bow at the back that cinched my waist.
On Easter Sunday I wore that pink dress with black patent leather shoes and a wide-brimmed straw hat. I posed for a picture just before church, the wind from the Gulf teasing my hair.
How my mother managed to buy the fabric and ribbon I never knew, much less the shoes and hat. What I thought then was that she was a magician; she could weave from thin air. I now realize that her skill as a seamstress coupled with her determination made her daughter’s girlish dream come true. But I wore more than a dress that Easter; I was outfitted for a lifetime adventure of making things happen.