We wait until all three of us are together, my mother, my sister, and I - the oldest child. My mother has sold the old house where we grew up and now lives in the woods nearer us.
"We can open it now," my mother says, giving us the box with her wedding dress inside. I was born 10 months after the wedding, so I know that the dress with the 100 cloth-covered buttons lining the back has never come out of its box in 45 years.
I didn't wear a dress of fine lace, a small dazzle of sequins crossing the perfect collarbone of my mother in the studio photo we all have.
"OK," I say, "great." And hesitate just for a moment.
With the dress comes every story I know of love, virginity, and of something that we can never have as a generation, because the rules are so different. I didn't wear a puffy net skirt over satin or a veil I borrowed from my best friend in a delicate spray over my carefully curled hair. I didn't carry cream-colored orchids.
I wore a brushed-cotton dress above the ankles with a square neck, not quite what I wanted but what I could afford. My father had died long ago. Carrying a bouquet of sea lavender, I floated down the aisle in white Chinese shoes that kept unbuckling. I was not on dad's arm, but Grampy's, as the organ played a raucous rendition of "The Wedding March" on an October night of rain.
When we spring the dress free, it's like unfolding a splendid white butterfly.
"Oh," my mother says and does not wave a hand in front of her face, but that's what her voice sounds like. Oh.
"Oh," my sister and I say. "Oh my." We love it. We touch the lace, the sequins, and the satin-covered buttons. My sister is pulling out the blue tissue paper from the sleeves, the window of the box rattling as she draws the dress out. We each hold it. Neither of us has ever worn anything so careful, so indulgent, so archetypal, symbolic, or transcending.
It's obvious that my hand will not fit into the sleeve, let alone dream of wearing it. It's a fine line, this being pleased with how I married and being wistful, like a girl wanting to dress up, just once, for an event that would have required the heels and the hoop skirts I somehow missed.
The dress lies on the new kitchen linoleum amid my mother, my sister, me, and, almost audibly, my father.
My father rises in memory and dances with my mother, whose satin-covered buttons burst open just as she began to come down the aisle. Her father, clumsily pushing the soft satin into cloth loops, said ever so quietly to her, "A new convertible can be yours if you change your mind...."
My mother, classy with her dark lips and dark pin-curled hair, engaged 11 previous times, said, "No takers," and with the last button buttoned, sailed toward my father with his sunburned Irish face and white suit coat, waiting for his bride.
We know what Ma wore on her honeymoon and how they chatted in the little bar in Nantucket and how only two photographs of the wedding exist: one of the parents, and one of my mother and father flushed with summer and their wedding day.
My mother is surrounded by white; my father looks the same.
Maybe my mother goes out of the room to catch her breath, or maybe I'm sensing that the dress brings with it too many memories of the man who's not here and the day so long ago. I fold up the dress, fearful of its delicacy, of the air that will eat the lace, of the stories that fall like loose buttons I can't scramble after fast enough or put together in just the same way.
"You put it away?" my mother asks.
"Yes," I say, not sure what I'd do with the dress if I hadn't.
"Can I see it? I didn't see it! Me too, me too!" My daughters are in the room, tall, slender, just becoming young women, their bangs half-grown out.
Corrie, my secondborn, asks, "Can I try it on?"
"Yes," my sister and mother say.
The box is reopened, the blue papers again tossed, and the whole winged dress I thought so fragile is pulled eagerly forth. Corrie takes the flounces, and I follow her. "To do the buttons," I say. We all know the story of the buttons.
My daughter is careful not to show herself to me, and I busy myself with the lace and do up only a couple buttons. With her lanky arms and legs, my daughter comes out, a Cinderella in the hall of my mother's new house, her collarbone magnificently naked, and her skin like tissue with form - that smooth, that unblemished.
"That's how small I was," my mother says. Corrie tilts the skirt, shyly, proudly, while we stare, my sister exclaiming over and over that Corrie's a princess, a queen.
"Can I try it on, too?" asks Sara, my first-born.
Over the smooth skin goes my mother's dress. "It itches," Sara says. I fasten a couple buttons, and she comes out as if on wheels. We ooh and ahh at everything we had forgotten the first time we opened the dress, when I only saw what was.
Wedding dresses are about hope and dreams. For that first moment, I couldn't see how the dress was brimming with life. All I could remember was that the wedding day was gone, my father gone, even my grandfather, and our old home. The dress seemed to be a nostalgic glimpse into a past that seemed too small and sad, as if its happiness was over.
Then my daughters tiptoe daintily in the dress of my mother, and I see the other part of wedding days, wedding dresses. I see so clearly that it is us - the women of the family, now standing in a circle - who are the unending result of the promise my mother stepped so confidently toward.
The dress led to this moment of me, my sister, my mother, my daughters, the stories we hold, and all, all the beautiful stories waiting to come forth in their lightness and resilience, as resplendent as the wedding dress let out from a box.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor