From Chicken Soup for the Sister's Soul

Sister Dresses

How do people make it through life without a sister?

Sara Corpening

When Mother died, Dad gave up the summer house. “Come and take what you want, girls,” he had said to us— and we did.

I chose the tall secretary where Mother sat so often writing letters by a sunny window. Beth chose a painting of the summer house itself. Ellen picked a statue of horses, for she and Mother had shared a love of riding. Then we put drawers full of old letters, slides and faded photos— the collective memory of a family—into a dozen boxes, and each of us chose four.

Later I sat on the top step of my porch and opened a box marked “ALBUMS.” Here were photographs of my father, resplendent in his Navy uniform, and one of my mother leaning against their first car. As I leafed through the pages, the family grew, we bought our first house, the cars got bigger. Then, on the last page, there was a picture of us in our matching “sister dresses.”

I could almost feel the starched ruffles and hear the rustle of the crinolines that were needed to keep the skirts nice and full. I remembered Mother’s delight when she found these outfits at the children’s shop in the village. There was one in my size and one for Ellen, but no size four for Beth. We were so excited when the shopkeeper told us she could order a dress for Beth that would come in time for Easter.

When the big box arrived in early April, we gathered around Mother as she lifted the dresses out one by one. They were made of clouds of dotted Swiss-white organdy with blue flocked dots. The skirts and collars were trimmed with tiny blue bows. “To match your eyes,” Mother said.

We were allowed to try them on just once so we could have a “fashion show” for Father that evening. As we twirled into the dining room in our finery, he burst into applause. We daintily grasped the ruffled skirts and executed our best curtsies.

As I looked at the photograph, I could recall the warmth of the pale spring sunshine on our faces on Easter Sunday. We must have resisted putting on coats to go to church. They surely would have crushed our dresses— and besides, how then could anyone have seen how beautifully we matched?

In time, I handed my dress down to Ellen and she handed hers down to Beth. But those dotted Swiss creations were only the beginning of a long parade of matching sister outfits. I remember the year of the blue calicoes and the year we all had yellow jumpers. Even Father got into the spirit when he came back from a business trip to Arizona with Mexican dresses for each of his girls— including Mother.

Those wonderful white dresses, with rows of bright ribbons edging the wide collars and hems, had skirts that were cut in a complete circle. Father put Ravel’s Bolero on the record player and we spun madly about the living room, our beribboned skirts fluttering like butterflies. At last we crashed, giggling, into a heap. Dad sat in his armchair and grinned his “that’s-my-girls” smile.

I remember these first sister dresses so clearly that I’m surprised I can’t remember the last ones. Maybe Mother knew we were outgrowing the idea. I think she saw how different we were becoming and just stopped buying us matching dresses.

By the time we were adults, our lives were on these very distinct tracks. Mother would shake her head in bewilderment and say to Father, “How did we get three daughters so different?” He would merely smile.

That first year without Mother, we knew Christmas would be bittersweet. For as long as I can remember, Dad had always given Mother a beautiful nightgown at Christmas—long and silky with plenty of lace. The tree certainly sparkled, but there was no big box from “Sweet Dreams” beneath it. And although we put on happy faces for the sake of our children, the little touches that Mother always added were missing.

Suddenly, Ellen drew out from behind the tree three identical white packages. On the lids, written in Dad’s bold hand, were the words “From the Nightie Gnome.” We opened the presents and lifted out three identical red flannel nightshirts.

Whooping with delight, we pulled them from the tissue paper and ran down the hall to put them on. When we came back to show off our sister nighties, Dad had put Bolero on the stereo. We joined hands and did an impromptu dance. As the music grew louder, we twirled around faster and faster, ignoring the widening eyes of our disbelieving husbands and the gaping mouths of our children.

I smile now at the sight we must have made: three grown women dressed in red flannel nighties whirling madly through a jumble of empty boxes and wrapping paper. When the music ended in a dash of cymbals, we crashed, giggling, into a heap.

Our husbands shook their heads in wonder. The younger children nearly keeled over with embarrassment while the older ones held their sides with laughter: Dad just cracked his “that’s-my-girls” grin.

Faith Andrews Bedford

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