I twirl around and around in front of my mirror. I quickly smooth out the crinkles beginning to form on the beautiful silk dress. Glancing at my face I notice a stray hair and quickly pin it back into place. Reapplying a coat of lipstick, I nervously look at my dress one last time. It is beautiful.
I am filled with pride I cannot explain. Just three weeks ago it was an old dirty silk parachute, filled with memories of a war that we thought would never happen. Filled with memories of the terror my brothers experienced when they dropped behind enemy lines. Filled with memories of the dread they experienced if the Germans found them. However, even these feelings of worry cannot overwhelm my feeling of eagerness to wear the dress.
I savor the way the silk slips through my hands like warm butter against my skin. The top hugs me tightly then carefully flows into a billowing skirt. It has been gathered in at places to give it a ruffled look. The dove-white silk carefully accents my tan skin. Just like this happiness accents the hardness that I have gone through in my life.
Behind me in the mirror I see my room. It is a mess from all my getting ready. I see shoes strewn about, towels flung on the floor, and a whole slew of makeup, bobby pins, and the little jewelry I have. Behind that I glimpse my childhood pictures of chocolate cakes with pink icing and fairy-tale cities that existed only in my wildest dreams. Old birthday cards and letters from close friends fill me with nostalgia. My eyes fill with tears as I think of how happy I feel. I remember the times that led up to this moment.
I remember that it was a Saturday afternoon and I was in the living room getting fitted for the dress. I watched my mother carefully to be sure she wouldn’t stick me with her pins. I watched those graceful hands gather the silk tight across my front to show off a slim figure. The dress was starting to look like a dress and less like the parachute that it was. The dove-white silk hugged my body carefully as I imagined the prom. I looked out the window and saw our yard in full bloom. The flowers were bright colors and the grass green. Shifting my gaze to inside the house I saw my sister carefully doing her homework. A little beyond that I saw my youngest brother reading intently a book called The Odyssey. It was about his tenth time reading it. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my grandmother washing the dishes. I can still hear her humming an old tune her mother had sung to her on their farm in Greece when she was a little girl. However, even through all that happiness on that day, I still remembered the fit I had when I heard I was to be wearing a silk parachute to the senior prom.
I was crying. I was crying and I could not stop. I had made sacrifices my whole life but for once I was hoping to have something for me. I ran to my room and I slammed the door. All I was thinking of was the dirty parachute in a box with all of the other things that my brother had brought back from the war. It was festering away in a dark corner of the hall closet in all of its gory glory. The bullet holes from where it had been shot at showed proudly. The smell was unbearable; it was a mixture of dirty muddy grass, and sweat.
I had thought, Father, don’t think of me as selfish, but why did you leave us with nobody to bring in money? Why couldn’t you have held on for the good of your family? I had thought that before but never as fiercely as then. If he had not died so suddenly, I remember thinking, Mother would have enough money to buy me a new dress and she wouldn’t have to work. I realize now that those initial reactions were silly, but at the time it seemed so important. Now, I wonder, do I deserve this dress?
Our family is poor and it was so even before Father died. He lost his restaurant job and he went to work in the shipyards, which didn’t exactly make him want to go to work each day. And then Alex and Perry went to war and we didn’t hear from them. Three months after they came home, Father died.
And here I was thinking that my mother’s best effort wasn’t good enough for me to wear. I don’t think that now. This is the moment I have been waiting for and now it has finally come. I survey myself with a critical eye. I can’t help but feel happy with the young woman I see staring back at me. With one last glance at myself, I open the door.
* * *
This story was inspired by a real person and a real dress! Helen Phillips wore this prom dress in January of 1946. She still has the dress that was made from her brother Alex’s silk parachute. Alex Phillips was in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II when he parachuted into Greece to help the resistance fighters. Helen’s granddaughter Emily first heard this story in the fall of 2005 when she was ten years old and her grandmother was seventy-five.