Part 1~~ Christmas, 2017.
As I open an unwrapped cardboard box this past Christmas, I know instantly what my brother-in-law Tom and his partner have mailed me. I will find my sister Janice’s wedding dress from her first wedding in 1972, an informal family event held on the banks of Spring Creek, in Western Colorado. Our mother sewed the navy blue, gingham prairie-style dress with yellow flowered embroidery and white eyelet trim on the sleeves and the bottom tier of the dress. The wide cummerbund cinched Janice’s tiny waist with a double row of the same flowered embroidery. I easily picture Janice’s long blond hair and California-girl tan, remembering with a smile watching her swinging on a rope swing across the tiny spring where we had played as children. I also remember how on a Christmas morning 14 years ago, my sister Janice called to tell me she could not get the notes of Christmas carols from the page of music to her hands. Almost fourteen years have sped by since her diagnosis of brain cancer; Janice died a few short weeks later. I am still learning to live without my sister and best friend. As I lift the dress from the box, I see it has been cleaned, made crisp, and seemingly new.
After Janice died in 2004, her husband Tom heard me loudly and clearly when I said, “I will treasure anything of Janice’s that you send me.” Her recipe box, letters, college keepsakes, and more followed. This Christmas his partner has crafted an exquisite set of notecards with a close-up of the flowery embroidery, a fade-out picture of an oil painting of Janice in this dress, and an elegant thumbnail picture of the dress on the back of the notecards. And now the dress. I remember sitting in my closet clutching Janice’s tee shirts, weeping as I smelled her ponytail, cut off before she received her one and only chemo treatment. These and other transitional objects helped connect me tangibly with my beloved sister. The objects formed the bridge to her life after her life passed into death. The material things reminded me that she was once the sister who shared my childhood room, who shared a tent when we camped in Colorado, who stayed up late at night talking about boys, school projects, and friend quandaries. She was the sister whom I vowed to protect when she was first put on my lap when I was three and a half. She was the sister whom I could not save. For the first few years after her death I needed to touch what she had touched, put on the earrings she wore, dab her perfume on my neck, rub her body lotion on my hands, stop by her portrait in the hall, brushing my fingers across the glass, and read her journals when I could not sleep at night. In the initial stages of grief we imagine we can stay in touch with people we have loved and lost through the objects of their lives. At first this contact through these objects keeps alive our attachment, but after a while, we must let even these precious objects go.
Part 2: Loss braided into life
As I hold the dress up to show Gary, I smile as I remember. She was so petite, lovely, and playful that day. Today I gaze at the dress and see my sister’s dress, my mother’s delicate sewing, her tiny stitches and careful finished seams. I no longer need to cling to this dress; Janice lives in my heart—the transitional objects gave me enough connection to build a permanent bridge from my interior life to her vanished life, in my memory. Maybe I will find a domestic arts museum which will want to display this dress as folk art from the 1970’s, when the hippie culture, women’s liberation, and casual weddings burst on the American scene. Today I am not weeping; I am smiling. The work of grief brings me the calm pleasure of memory. Once, I could not have imagined anything other than wrenching loss. Today, I feel joy tinged with sorrow, as I remember a shining day with wildflowers and love. I am at peace.