The Dress

Something old, something new and a lifetime of memories


By Ashley Wahl

Some people are born storytellers, colorful raconteurs with theatrical gestures and dynamic voices to match. My grandmother wasn’t like that. Still, I couldn’t help but love her stories.

Just over 5 feet tall, Mimi was petite, sensible and soft spoken — but much tougher than she looked. Ask any of her six children, who knew better than to test her nerves, especially on grocery runs, when her swift backhand had, from time to time, restored order.

Even after her short-term memory began to slip, Mimi could recall, in exquisite detail, vibrant scenes from the past. She often used filler phrases like “but whatever there” as a sort of sassy punctuation, which I adored.

Because her stories were a part of her, it felt like they were a part of me, too. 

Among the best were tales about her uncle Joe, who ran off with the traveling circus, and memories of her younger sister, Shirley, who was allowed to wear overalls and go fishing with their daddy.

“I was expected to wear dresses,” she would say. “But whatever there.”

Speaking of dresses, I wish I knew the story of her wedding gown. Her memories of Papa were always my favorite.

Like on their first date, when he told her they would marry someday, and she laughed out loud.

Her parents weren’t excited about their engagement — they said Papa was from the wrong side of the tracks — and so she made wedding plans without them. Did she tell me her gown was handmade? Or had it been sewn by a friend? Sounds right, but I can’t remember.

Mimi and Papa were 20 when they made their vows, which they kept for nearly 60 years. After Papa died, she still talked to him aloud.

When her eyesight began to decline, Mimi moved in with my aunt, but dragged her feet leaving the last place she and Papa called home in Hope Mills.

By last year, she was mostly blind. My aunt was sorting through one of her closets when she found Mimi’s wedding gown.

This is a good time to mention that I had recently found a dress for my own wedding, a handmade creation from a design house where almost everything is made from vintage materials and upcycled treasures. My dress was no exception. But it wasn’t quite finished. The designer was looking for an antique fabric to add length and layers.

Mimi’s dress was a perfect match. I couldn’t wait to call and tell her, but when I did, I must have caught her in a foggy moment. I didn’t think she’d really grasped what I’d said.

Back in spring, the designer surprised me with photos of my dress-in-progress. She hadn’t just made it longer. She’d also added a lace belt made from Mimi’s sleeves and embellished the neckline with buttons that had swept down the back of Mimi’s dress.

It was something straight out of my wildest dreams.

Mimi died in April, not long after the dress was complete. And just a week before she passed, she sent a note — something she’d asked my aunt to write out:

I am so happy you have found love and wish you both a lifetime of memories. . . . I’m glad you will wear some of my wedding dress — what an honor for me after all these years.

An honor for me too, Mimi. And this September, your memories will be a part of my own. In fact, they already are.  OH

Contact editor Ashley Wahl at

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