Millie’s Mother’s Red Dress

Millie’s Mother’s Red Dress

From A 2nd Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul

Millie’s Mother’s Red Dress

It hung there in the closet
While she was dying, Mother’s red dress,
Like a gash in the row
Of dark, old clothes
She had worn away her life in.

They had called me home
And I knew when I saw her
She wasn’t going to last.

When I saw the dress, I said
“Why, Mother—how beautiful!
I’ve never seen it on you.”

“I’ve never worn it,” she slowly said.
“Sit down, Millie—I’d like to undo
A lesson or two before I go, if I can.”

I sat by her bed
And she sighed a bigger breath
Than I thought she could hold.
“Now that I’ll soon be gone,
I can see some things.
Oh, I taught you good—but I taught you wrong.”

“What do you mean, Mother?”
“Well—I always thought
That a good woman never takes her turn,
That she’s just for doing for somebody else.
Do here, do there, always keep
Everybody else’s wants tended and make sure
Yours are at the bottom of the heap.

“Maybe someday you’ll get to them.
But of course you never do.
My life was like that—doing for your dad,
Doing for the boys, for your sisters, for you.”

“You did—everything a mother could.”

“Oh, Millie, Millie, it was no good—
For you—for him. Don’t you see?
I did you the worst of wrongs.
I asked for nothing—for me!

“Your father in the other room,
All stirred up and staring at the walls—
When the doctor told him, he took
It bad—came to my bed and all but shook
The life right out of me. ‘You can’t die,
Do you hear? What’ll become of me?‘
“‘What’ll become of me?’
It’ll be hard, all right, when I go.
He can’t even find the frying pan, you know.

“And you children—
I was a free ride for everybody, everywhere.
I was the first one up and the last one down
Seven days out of the week.
I always took the toast that got burned.
And the very smallest piece of pie.

“I look at how some of your brothers
Treat their wives now
And it makes me sick, ‘cause it was me
That taught it to them. And they learned.
They learned that a woman doesn’t
Even exist except to give.
Why, every single penny that I could save
Went for your clothes, or your books,
Even when it wasn’t necessary.
Can’t even remember once when I took
Myself downtown to buy something beautiful—
For me.

“Except last year when I got that red dress.
I found I had twenty dollars
That wasn’t especially spoke for.
I was on my way to pay it extra on the washer.
But somehow—I came home with this big box.
Your father really gave it to me then.
‘Where you going to wear a thing like that to—
Some opera or something?’
And he was right, I guess.
I’ve never, except in the store,
Put on that dress.

“Oh Millie—I always thought if you take
Nothing for yourself in this world
You’d have it all in the next somehow
I don’t believe that anymore.
I think the Lord wants us to have something—
Here—and now.

“And I’m telling you, Millie, if some miracle
Could get me off this bed, you could look
For a different mother, ‘cause I would be one.
Oh, I passed up my turn so long
I would hardly know how to take it.
But I’d learn, Millie.
I would learn!”

It hung there in the closet
While she was dying, Mother’s red dress,
Like a gash in the row
Of dark, old clothes
She had worn away her life in.

Her last words to me were these:
“Do me the honor, Millie,
Of not following in my footsteps.
Promise me that.”

I promised.
She caught her breath
Then Mother took her turn
In death.

Carol Lynn Pearson

Used by Permission of Carol Lynn Pearson, 1976

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