|THE OLA DRESS
by Sandra Worsham
I chose Kathy to give The Ola Dress to. I thought
she was the most sentimental of all the second cousins. I
remembered her as a child, her sweet smile, her loving ways.
Everyone always said she was the grandchild most like Aunt
Alice, my mother’s oldest sister. Kathy was the one who sent
birthday cards to Mama and pictures of her children in
Christmas cards every year.
It was the night before she died from ovarian cancer that
Mama told me about The Ola Dress. It was the night she
wanted to talk, and she wanted me to take notes about
everything she said. I sat in a chair at the foot of her bed
with a notepad and pen.
“The family pictures are in that second drawer to my desk in
the living room,” she said. “Separate those by family and give
them to whichever family they belong. That gold Depression
glass bowl with the roses in the bottom is something Alice
brought me from the World’s Fair. You can keep it.”
She waved her hand in the air over her face as if shooing
away a bug. Then she continued. “There is an old dress in
the bottom drawer of my dresser. We always called it The Ola
Dress because it belonged to a little cousin of ours who died
young. We got her dress, and Alice tatted a neckline to run a
ribbon through. You might want to put that in a shadow
Then she got philosophical. “Life is just a book, and this is
the grand finale,” she said. And, “It is just as important to
prepare for death as it is to prepare for life.” And, “Don’t
hold anything against anybody, whatever they did or didn’t
do during this time of my sickness.” And, finally, “Is
everything all right? Between us?”
Ironic that she would ask that last question. It was the
question I always asked her, the question I asked to make
that gnawing feeling of guilt, or something not being right,
go away. A feeling that the radio station was not quite on the
mark, a little sound of static inside my heart. The question
was always brought on by that look on my mother’s face, the
sad look, the look that made me think I had done something
wrong, made her mad, hurt her feelings.
So often I had. If I talked back or touched something in the
store after being told not to so many times, there was that
look, the sad look. And the waiting began. Waiting for
forgiveness. It seemed like hours, the back turned, the
silence, the look, that look.
“Mama, smile when I smile,” I once said, looking up at her,
the tips of my fingers touching her elbow as she stood
staring out the window over the kitchen sink.
“I don’t feel like smiling.”
“Is everything all right yet?” I asked, after waiting longer.
If everything wasn’t all right yet, the answer was silence.
“Mama, I’m sorry,” I pleaded.
“There are some things that saying ‘I’m sorry’ won’t make all
right.” When she said that, I wondered what those things
might be. What could you do that could not be undone? You
could kill a person. Saying ‘I’m sorry’ would not bring a dead
person back to life. I wondered if my mother thought I would
ever commit a murder. When she said those words, life
seemed like a long tunnel of waiting with something beautiful
only at the very end, something like blue light, like pink
quartz, like forgiveness.
What Mama wanted to know that night was if that never-
again-mentioned subject was still standing between us, or if
it had been finally put to rest. It was a subject I would not
discuss again, not on that night, or the next day, or ever
again with my mother.
It was the day that, once it happened, was put to rest,
buried between us as real as if it had been given a bonafide
funeral and had been buried in a coffin under layers of dirt. It
was the day, followed by the next day, the day of declaration
followed by the day of about-face, of turn-around, of the
renunciation of the declaration.
“Mama, I want to go live with Gale,” I said in the letter I
handed her at age twenty-eight, on the day I had designated
to tell her in her living room. “She makes me happy, and I
love her,” I wrote in my leaning-backward handwriting.
The letter that day slipped from my mother’s fingers. It
fluttered to the floor like a wounded bird. My mother’s face
went into her hands. She shook her head. The tears came. “I
can’t live here in this town any more,” she said. “I’m going to
have to move.”
I can’t explain what happened to me in my bed that night in
my apartment alone. All I know is that the next morning,
nothing in my life was the same. I could not do the deed. I
could not move ahead, my mother’s life ruined. The feeling
had to go away. That was all. I promised God that I would
never kiss another woman.
The next morning meant one phone call to my mother.
“Never mind,” I said. “It’s not going to happen. I take it back.”
All I said to Gale was, “I’m sorry, but I can’t.”
From that day on, I became the person that I could live with.
My mother and I never referred to that day again. Until that
night and the question she asked. “Is everything all right?
“Absolutely,” I said.
* * *
I met Lauren on match.com, and we were married in
Vermont. The day I went to meet Kathy at the Mexican
restaurant in Eatonton, I took our wedding pictures. I had
put them in an album, and I was filled with the zeal and
confidence of a new convert. Kathy was young and hip. She
would be cool with the news.
I left The Ola Dress in the car when I went into the
restaurant. It was big and was in a shadow box with a glass
front and a large, cumbersome wooden frame. In my arm I
held the album containing our wedding pictures.
Kathy looked like a hippy. She wore a soft cotton peasant
shirt in colors of purple and green. Her long brownish-
graying braid hung like a rope over her left shoulder.
“I’m so glad you told me,” she said, turning the pages of the
album. “Now I can relax,” she said. “Now I can really hug
you.” A strange statement, but I thought I understood. It
meant, “Now I really know you.”
When we went to our cars after lunch, we moved The Ola
Dress from my trunk to hers. She seemed pleased to have it.
It wasn’t until just before the family reunion that I learned
that Kathy had told everyone. All my first cousins, her
parents, who then told their brothers and sisters. Soon all
my first cousins in Atlanta—all of Aunt Alice’s children—had
been told that I had married a woman. All these cousins,
Fundamentalist Baptists who had surely voted against
Obama. “I didn’t even know two women could get married,”
Kathy told me her mother, my cousin Patsy, had said. Kathy
had many excuses about why she had told them: it was an
accident; she had let something slip about how happy she
was for me, and then Patsy
wouldn’t let it drop until she told her. Patsy told her husband
Buster. Buster called up Larry and Frankie. Larry called up
Bertha and Bob. In less than a day, all of Aunt Alice’s children
and their husbands and wives and offspring knew.
But I went to the family reunion anyway. I was determined to
finally live my own life.
At the reunion Kathy had an album of her own. She was
proud to show me the pictures from her and her husband
Dale’s hunting trip to Africa. I sat down and turned the
pages. There on every page, one after the other, were
pictures of Kathy with her rifle by her side, genuflecting
beside the corpse of a dead animal, its feet folded as if in
prayer. There she was on every page, posed the same way,
smiling the same smile, her long gray braid hanging over her
shoulder, proud that she was a real woman who knew how to
shoot and kill beautiful animals. She was not proud of the
casserole she brought to the family get-together, but she
was proud of her album. Zebra, antelope, caribou,
wildebeest. Page after page of carnage. Why would you kill a
zebra? I was thinking as I turned the pages. I was not
thinking, Now I can really hug you.
Before I left, Kathy said, “You and Lauren must come and
see our house. All the animals have come in, and we have
them on the wall. I don’t know how you feel about early dead
animal,” she laughed.
“Well, I’m thinking that The Ola Dress probably doesn’t fit in
with the décor,” I said.
“Not really. I gave it to Daddy, and he has it on the wall in
the basement. It looks good down there.”
I pictured it. The Ola Dress encased in glass, protected,
waiting, ready to be passed down through the generations.
The leftover from a dead girl, frozen in place, something that
probably wouldn’t fit in anywhere.
Sandra Worsham lives in Milledgeville, Georgia, where she attends
“Wings” every Tuesday afternoon with friends at a local restaurant—
no literary symbolism: the wings are cheap on Tuesday. Her stories
have been published in Carolina Quarterly, Chattahoochee Review,
Memphis Magazine, Ascent, and Los Angeles Review, among others.
In 2006, she received her MFA in fiction from Bennington College.
Her story “Pinnacle” won the 2006 Red Hen Press Short Fiction
Award. She is currently working on a memoir entitled Going to Wings:
a Memoir of a Late-Life Coming Out. “The Ola Dress” is based on
stories from this memoir.