From Chicken Soup for the Romantic Soul

Norma Shearer’s Dress

We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Before World War II, my husband and I lived in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia, in a fifty-dollar-a-month apartment. This was almost half my husband’s monthly salary. Though we could not afford even a radio, we managed to pay for two babies. Occasionally, upon my husband’s insistence, I went to a movie. Both of us couldn’t go, and, anyway, who would mind the children?

We were wondrously happy in those struggling years. On sunny afternoons I piled the children into a canvas buggy and did the five-and-tens, just to look. The thing I yearned for most was a one-egg poacher, which cost fifteen cents. I would pick it up, examine it from all angles and return it to the counter. I didn’t have fifteen cents to spend. Incredibly, this caused me no real unhappiness. In those days we simply accepted things as they were.

When we entertained, it was with conversation, games and bowls of bright red apples.

The one thing that did make my husband feel poor was the dress I wore during my pregnancies. It had belonged to an older, larger sister. It was a depressing mustard-yellow print, large enough for me to “grow into.” In the daytime I wore a wraparound Mother Hubbard, but in the evenings it was always the same mustard-colored print.

The night we first met, my husband had said I reminded him of Norma Shearer, a great movie idol of the time. I, too, had dark hair that fell over one side of my face in the fashion of the day. But there, I am certain, any resemblance ended.

One evening my husband told me of a dress he’d seen in a shop window. “I wish I could buy it for you,” he said. “It looks like you; it looks like Norma Shearer.”

“Where would I wear it?” I asked. “Be sensible.”

But every day thereafter, when I walked the children, I stole a look at The Dress. It was made of mousseline de soie, in a design of pastel diamonds, the colors delicate yet deep and true. The dress hugged the mannequin from waist to knee, flaring out around her silver-slippered feet. Its black velvet belt was caught up under her bosom, with a flower whose petals were made of the same material as the dress. It was not only my kind of dress, but any woman’s dream of the perfect dress—beautiful and timeless. The price was twenty dollars.

I told my husband to stop brooding about a luxury we couldn’t afford. If I had twenty dollars, I’d buy new shoes for everybody, which is what we needed most.

One day, as I was looking for chalk, I found twenty dollars! The previous Christmas my husband’s company had declared an unexpected bonus—a week’s salary, twenty-seven whole dollars extra. Unaccustomed to such a bonanza, we had squandered seven dollars on shrimp, artichokes, anchovies and wine. The remaining twenty dollars we tucked into a box of chalk in the dresser drawer for safekeeping. Then we forgot it completely.

How could we possibly have forgotten so vast a sum? We had been operating on a strict budget so long that the extra money had been, for the moment, merely a beautiful piece of green paper, not to be translated immediately into shoes, groceries or entertainment.

When my husband came home, we laughed and laughed, fingering the crisp bill between us. And then we put it back.

It rained the next day, so I didn’t go for my usual walk. That night my husband came in with a large box under his arm. We looked at each other wordlessly. He put the box in the bedroom. We had a quiet supper, put the children to bed and then my husband said, almost unbearable excitement in his voice: “Put it on, honey. Put the dress on.”

I went into the bedroom, slipped the dress over my head and looked into the mirror. It was my dress. It was, indeed, perfect. And so was I. I was Norma Shearer.

The dress became the symbol of purest joy in our house, illuminating our lives as nothing would ever do again. Each Saturday night I put it on and had a special date with my husband. We danced to the silent music in our hearts and talked for hours, as we used to before we were married.

Hope stirred again within us. Bold new plans. Of course, the money in the chalk box was never mentioned; it had, after all, been an illusion. There wasn’t enough money in the world to pay for what we had anyway.

Now the dress lies in the bottom drawer of the cedar chest. It has been there a long time, and although the flower has curled a little around the edges, the colors are as bright as ever. I have only to think of that dress to feel again the warmth and delight of that long-ago time. Sometimes as I lie wakeful in the night, I remember my husband turning to me and saying: “Why aren’t you asleep? What are you thinking about?”

“The dress,” I would tell him.

And again, I can feel its rustle. I remember dancing without music. I close my eyes and I am Norma Shearer again, just for tonight.

Marion Benasutti

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