Note: this entry was originally posted in January. I am reposting parts 1-3 since so much time has passed between those entries and part 4, which I will post tomorrow.
Part One: Young and Seemingly Immortal
This is the story of three friendships, four little girls, and a box of many beautiful dresses. It spans over two decades, four cities, and touches countless individuals. Two of the key people in this story are gone now, taken too soon by similar circumstances. One was my daughter, and one was my friend. Both live on in the memory of the dresses. This is the story of lives left in pieces of fabric from those dresses and how one person has pieced the story together with words, and another person has sewn the story together with thread and fabric, and how both have lost sleep, time, and ultimately, pieces of themselves. This is memento mori and memento amor.
This is the tale of how two women have attempted to complete a Viking story that began long ago.
I once had a very dear friend named Pat Swann. Pat had long brown hair and a big smile. Pat and I first met when we were working at our part-time jobs in a steak house in Norfolk, Virginia. She had worked there for a while, and she took me under her wing and helped me out when I first started. She took karate classes in college, and on the night before her wedding, she threw her fiance over her shoulder with one hand. We all laughed until we cried. Pat had the ability to make people laugh effortlessly. She was incredibly intelligent, hard-working, and did not suffer fools gladly.
I was the maid of honor at her wedding, which was a lovely outdoor affair on her in-law’s land, and she reciprocated the honor at my first wedding. I remember that she had just given birth to her first daughter two months before my wedding, and she was worried about how she would look, but she absolutely glowed. And I wouldn’t have wanted anyone else standing beside me on that day.
Before I got married and went to graduate school at Virginia Tech, Pat and I car pooled to Old Dominion University where she was working on dual degrees in German and Education, and I was working on my bachelor’s in English. During these years we became very close, and when I married my first husband, Pat and her husband Winn were among our best friends. My ex-husband used to go running with Winn, and then we would have cookouts at their townhouse in Virginia Beach. We had parties at our small apartment, and Pat and Winn were always there.
When Paul and I moved to northern Virginia for my big corporate job transfer, we made a few friends, one of whom is integral to this story, but Pat and I remained close. So it was only natural that she was very excited when I became pregnant with my first child. She had already had her two daughters, beautiful girls; one looked more like Pat, and one looked more like Win, which is how it often happens in families with more than one child. Pat was tremendously helpful in calming my first-time mother fears, and she donated a lot of things to the cause because Paul and I were really just starting out.
Pat and Winn and their two daughters eventually bought a bigger house in an older suburban area of Virginia Beach, and when we moved back from Alexandria, we continued with our visits and family parties. We bought or own house in the suburbs of Norfolk and settled into our own version of the predictable “American Dream.”
Unfortunately while we were away, Pat had been diagnosed with a brain tumor; luckily, it was operable, and she seemed to bounce back fairly well. I’ll say this about her, she was one of those people who, even though she had a cutting wit, was genuinely cheerful. I remember that she smiled a lot, and she had a chipped tooth right in the front that she never got fixed, even though she could have, because she felt like she wouldn’t be herself if she changed it. That was Pat: unpretentious, genuine.
The first chance we had to visit her after her illness, I brought her a silk scarf to wear where her hair had fallen out. She protested that it was much too fancy for her. Plain cotton bandanas were just fine. After all, she was certain that her hair would grow back, and she was right. Almost all of it did grow back except for a few places near the front. It was darker, but it was there.
After the incident with her tumor, Pat, who had planned to teach full-time once her girls were older, stayed at home for a while, substituting on occasion, and it seemed that she and Winn had a really good life. Of course there were the usual problems for a family of four with one income, but overall, I always looked on them as an incredibly well-suited couple. Pat’s near-fatal experience had seemed to bring them even closer, and for all appearances, they really were a typical family of four living in the suburbs.
When Alexis turned around three, Pat brought out all of these lovely dresses that her daughters had worn when they were younger. Most were presents from her mother-in-law. They were beautiful smocked dresses, with lace around the sleeves, and Peter Pan collars. So many dresses in so many colors. Pat offered them to me, and of course, I accepted. I was actually a little naive, though, because it never occurred to me that she might be offering to sell me the dresses, which she was, but I didn’t find that out until much later, and I was chagrined by my thoughtlessness.
Pat, being the generous person that she was, never said anything to me. She just let me take the armload of dresses home. Most looked as if they had only been worn once or twice. They were very feminine dresses, pale greens, pinks, small floral prints with white pinafores. Alexis looked beautiful in them. She always liked to wear dresses and to be dressed up, that is until the second grade when she had an incident on the playground that caused her dress to flip over and her underwear to show. After that, she didn’t want to wear dresses any more. I didn’t find this out until years later.
But as usual, I am digressing.
My mother and I also bought Alexis dresses, even though she didn’t really need them, and my mother-in-law made her some beautiful dresses as well. So by the time I gave birth to Caitlin when Alexis was four, the collection of dresses was really quite overwhelming, and far too much for one little girl. And again, many of them still looked as if they had only been worn once or twice because in fact, they had.
I have so many pictures of Alexis in these different dresses with her long hair, light brown, pulled back with bows, a big smile on her face. We used to have her portrait made at least twice a year so that we could give pictures to all of the family. She was the first grandchild on both sides of the family, and it was obvious in how much attention she was paid. She wasn’t a brat, but she was precocious. She was a very petite child, although her birth weight was average. And her coloring favored her father: she was fairer than I, and interestingly, as she got older, we noticed that she had two different eye colors: one was more green, and one was more grey/blue.
Caitlin was her opposite. Eager to be born, I had to go on bedrest with my second pregnancy, and Caitlin arrived three weeks early. She was a bigger baby, and she was born with a head full of almost black hair and dark eyes. She had very chubby arms and legs in comparison to Alexis’s very skinny ones. Like Pat and Winn’s two daughters, ours were opposites: one looking more like her father, and one looking more like her mother, at least in coloring.
My friend Kathleen came down from northern Virginia for my baby shower for Caitlin, which we had to have at my house because of my bedrest. It was at this shower that I received the cradle that I had really wanted so that I could put my baby girl at the foot of my bed and rock her to sleep at night. Pat was at my shower as well. I remember wearing an electric blue maternity dress that my mother-in-law had made for me. I felt wonderful, very much at peace with myself and the world. I experienced none of the fears I had had with my first pregnancy. In fact, it was probably the most at peace I have ever felt in my entire life.
At the time, both Paul and I worked at the medical school in Norfolk, and everyone in his office gave him a huge baby shower. I remember this because Paul came home with so many presents, including more dresses. I remember this beautiful sleeveless, baby blue one with smocking on the front. Funny the things you remember after so long.
end of part 1