“Why?” That’s what my mother says when I tell her, while we finish our Sunday dinner – post-Thanksgiving plates of turkey, oyster dressing, collard greens, and sweet potatoes. Mom and I had joked that my maternal grandmother and Aunt Bunny, my mother’s only sister, the two great cooks in our family, were peering down from their heavenly seats, chuckling over my mother Phyllis and that baby Tracie in the kitchen. I imagined them, eyes full of laughter, leaning close together to nudge each other over the two of us chopping and mixing and measuring when we cooked Thanksgiving afternoon.
I tell Mom, from my seat next to hers at the kitchen table, that I have something to do upstairs before I head back to my apartment on Hillsborough Street this afternoon.
My plan is to go up to her bedroom, to her walk-in closet. To take a look at my debutante ball dress, the taffeta gown that has sat undisturbed since she sent it to the cleaners to be boxed up and “preserved” for posterity some 14 years ago. I’m not sure exactly when she ferried the dress over to one of Durham’s oldest dry cleaners. But I do know it couldn’t have been long after the Alpha Kappa Alpha Debutante Ball in late November 1983, which linked me with 98 other young African-American women in a Raleigh coming-of-age ritual, one dating back almost half a century.
The ball, as tradition dictated, was on the Friday after Thanksgiving – just 11 days after my Aunt Bunny, the hands and mind and spirit behind my debutante dress, died in a freak car accident.
“You have the pictures,” my mother says, clearly trying to discourage this notion I have of dragging the oversized dress box out of her closet, tearing the tape away from the cardboard, feeling the weight of the heavy fabric in my hands, perhaps even draping the dress on my frame once again. Pictures alone won’t do, I try to explain to her.
But what I don’t say is that after close to 15 years, I need to make the dress – the most tangible symbol I have of my aunt’s love for me – real again. My mother is right. I have a stack of pictures and my memory as proof that the dress existed. That my aunt, Bernice Morgan, had sewn it, ruffles, carefully chosen beads, translucent sequins, and all. I know that I once swirled around a ballroom floor in it. But I need to know that the dress, a singularly powerful manifestation of my Aunt Bunny’s legacy, exists still. I don’t want to rely on what I remember.
Making my dress for the debutante ball, a formal celebration of my arrival at the threshold of womanhood, was one of my aunt’s last creative acts, and hers was a life inscribed and illuminated by her great capacity for creativity.
Bernice Morgan brought her innovative mind to bear in the classroom, where she developed strategies to reach out to children with behavioral and developmental problems. And she was just as inventive in the many homes she had during her life, a life in which she, my uncle, and twin cousins moved from New York to North Carolina, then later to Delaware, Maryland, and ultimately Philadelphia. Aunt Bunny sewed everything from clothes to curtains, decorated with as much flair as any professional interior designer, and painted everything from cityscapes, which she framed and hung on her living room walls, to a backyard hopscotch grid that I remember fondly from her house in Durham in the 1970s.
She also found joy and took pride in her mastery in the kitchen, where she kept a pot of Chock Full O’Nuts coffee going – her java of choice since her days in New York. And if you were lucky, she’d slice you a generous piece of her unbelievably rich carrot cake to go with it. But I don’t think even I have been willing to see how much the presence of the one – the debutante dress, inanimate, mute, and shut away in a box – marks the absence of the other, my aunt, whose boundless energy, big heart, restless spirit, gift of gab and gracious hostessing, and love of fun and family were too quickly and shockingly taken.
Maybe that’s why I’m so bent on freeing the dress from its cocoon of paper and preservatives, at least for a short while. My mother observes me from the bathroom door, her eyes intent and watchful behind her glasses, as I pry open the cardboard covering to reach a smaller box within.
The box is white, with a blue plastic window and a brownish bow design. Pretty tacky, I can’t help thinking. I remember my debutante dress of moire taffeta, a fabric with the appearance of watered silk. It had taken my aunt days, maybe weeks of searching Philadelphia’s version of a garment district to find the fabric.
As much as I want to make the dress a material presence once more, not just something that exists in my memory, and as much as I want to hold it to me, to take in the fine gloss of the fabric, to admire my aunt’s craftsmanship and care, it is what the dress has come to represent – the love and kinship of spirit that flowed between my aunt and me – that brings me back to it. And it’s that thought, my image of the dress as vessel, that nags me most as I look at the packaging. That dress, my dress, our dress deserves better safekeeping than the home it found in that cheesy box.
My dismay deepens when I finally open the box enough to extract the gown that my aunt had spent months shaping and sewing without the benefit of a pattern. I had envisioned a carefully pressed and folded dress, perhaps enveloped in folds of tissue paper. But there’s no tissue, and there are no careful folds of taffeta as I unceremoniously pull a crumpled gown from the half-opened box. No matter, I tell myself, though the lack of more thoughtful care for my dress, an irreplaceable piece of my history, makes me angry for a moment. What really matters is that I’m holding it in my hands.
For the first time since I was 16 years old, I touch my aunt’s handiwork. I spread the dress out on my mother’s bed and run my hand across its skirt; it feels substantial and silken under my fingers. I examine the ruffled neckline, not too high, not too low, and find tiny pearl-like beads there. I had forgotten those, as surely as I had forgotten that the location for the ball was the Raleigh Civic Center, not Memorial Auditorium. I notice that the sleeve edges, and the five ruffles that ripple down the skirt, from front to back, are subtly accented with translucent sequins, unobtrusive enough to go unnoticed in daylight, but perhaps present enough to lend sparkle to the dress on the night of the ball. I see that the hem of the dress is yellowing and wonder why, and what I can do to stop it. But the only thing I can do, I decide, is to try the dress on.
I often find it hard to believe, but I’m 30 now, soon to be 31. I once thought I might get married in my debutante dress. But I’ve come to realize that more likely than not, I’ll never wear it again.
So I tie on the hoop slip that was bought for me to wear underneath the dress 14 years ago. With the dress on, I carefully step into my mother’s bathroom. But the mirror there only allows me to see the dress from neckline to just below the waist. So I rustle down the stairs, feeling more like Scarlett than ever – until I reach the closest thing to a full-length mirror in my mom’s townhouse, in the downstairs bathroom. Looking in that mirror, I see the dress still molds itself to my frame. Closer to ivory than pure white in the light of the bathroom, it had, in every sense of the word, been made for me. But when I last wore it as a 16-year-old high school senior in 1983, I was a girl. Moving toward womanhood, yes, but still very much a girl.
In photos taken at the old Radisson before the ball in downtown Raleigh, I can see the glow, the hope and promise in the eyes of that girl in the one-of-a-kind dress. I remember laughing with my cousins as we walked down Fayetteville Street later that night, not venturing far from the hotel, a brisk fall wind blowing at our backs. I have no memory of where we were going, but I do recall still being caught up in the emotions of the evening. Missing my aunt, but enjoying the feeling that the night was mine, a harbinger of the life I had ahead of me.
I had been alert, aware, attuned to the world around me, I like to think. Yet I was unworldly, too. Unknowing about so much that life would bring.
My face hasn’t changed much. But the image facing me in the mirror this Sunday afternoon is that of a woman. I can see traces of loss, like the loss of my aunt, who isn’t here to see my attempts to use all the pieces of the pattern she left me. But the set of my shoulders and the lift of my head also have been marked by the triumphs that have come along the way. Like Aunt Bunny – teacher, seamstress, cook extraordinaire, artist, mother, sister, daughter, friend – I’m making it up as I go.
Tracie Fellers is a writer and editor who has received awards for her fiction from North Carolina State University and the National Council for Black Studies. This essay appears in the anthology 27 Views of Raleigh, published this month.