The dress popped up during a random search on eBay for vintage disco-era eveningwear (don’t judge me). When it scrolled across my screen, it took my breath away. The cream two piece, floorlength gown – sleeveless with a chiffon overlay trimmed in brown – was almost exactly the same ensemble my Big Mama had worn to my uncle’s wedding in the late 70s. Initially, I thought they were exactly the same, but as the photo shows my grandmother’s dress was edged in purple.
Throughout my childhood, it existed only in one of our heavy family photo albums: there stands my grandmother, in platforms, defiant eyes behind huge Jackie O shades and a bouffant. FIERCE, darling. The black Angie Dickinson. I can’t remember one occasion where I ever saw her in formalwear in real life (although she wore a fabulous hat with a veil and gloves to my grandfather’s funeral), but her unique sense of style and her take no prisoners approach to life have been clinging to me like a rich perfume for years.
I often tell a story about a pair of shoes she gave me in college: snakeskin stilettos on 4 inch heels that she wore to my father’s high school graduation. I didn’t have the type of life or even the clothes those shoes required, but the moment I saw them, I began envisioning something for myself that maybe she’d seen too. Something adventurous, something unexpected and against the grain. And in a very real way, those qualities have influenced how I live my life and and why I choose to be a writer.
My paternal grandmother has been deceased almost 12 years. She never got to see my sense of style develop, but oh, how I wish she could see me now in my avant garde cocktail dress or the fringed top I just ordered and will wear with leather shorts. When I decide to wear something that’s a little too “much” I think of her and hold my head higher. She’d understand my need to express myself through my clothes, to wear things that say something about my soul that I can’t put into words, to dress for a life I aspire to lead. It’s why she wore sunglasses indoors, stiletto heels to my father’s graduation and driving gloves when she roared her red Cadillac through our small town.
I’m sure she cut quite a figure in Brewton, in her Cadillacs and furs when black women weren’t “supposed” to have those things. I can see her floating through my parents’ reception like the fourth member of the Supremes, holding court with her flask and cigarettes and throaty laugh. No public tears when her sons walked down the aisle and started new lives. That wasn’t her style. No tears for me either, when I wept on the steps of her house before I left for college.
“Trust in Him,” she said. And that was that. That was all.
That was enough.
So. The dress. I didn’t bid, but I seriously considered it. It wasn’t her dress, after all.
Can you tell from this post how much I miss her? It pains me that the answers I need from her now – the answers to questions I didn’t think of and wasn’t brave enough to ask if I had – I can’t get. But even if Dorothy were still here, she might not have taken my curiosity well. She didn’t do interviews, or nosy grandchildren. Dorothy H. Barton didn’t dwell; she didn’t play the radio, if you catch my meaning. So when I need a dose of her spirit – when things get to be too much or I’m tired and ready to “set someone’s soup outdoors,” as she’d say – I hear her say, “Hmmph! Keep living!”
Or maybe she’d simply say again, “Trust in Him.”
And that’s enough.