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The Penny Dress

January 27, 2015

Yesterday’s blog shared about a family tradition I share with my daughters – a special trip to Chicago. Before I went with my oldest daughter, we spent hours paging through the American Girl catalog to pick exactly the perfect doll (or in her case, dolls) to purchase. Once her selection was narrowed down, we asked my grandmother, Mama, who was once a professional seamstress in the famed sewing room featured in the movie, Norma Rae, to sew a matching set of dresses for my all-American girl and her baby doll. That spring, we gathered all the material, notions and patterns to mail to Alabama.

When we called Mama to ask if she could possibly make the dresses, she said “Yes”, but under one condition. It was going to cost Erin – one penny. A tradition started by my cousin’s daughter who once took a couple pennies out of her pocket to pay Mama when she made her a beautiful dress for a school function. The fabric of families is held together by the traditions we weave. My tiny girl agreed to those terms.

The seamstress and the customer a year before the girls' trip.

The seamstress and the customer a year before the girls’ trip.

Shortly before our trip, the new dresses arrived in the mail. They were absolutely stunning. The first layer was a blue gingham sundress, reminiscent of Little House on the Prairie. The second layer was a gauzy and sheer coverlet, depicting scenes from the classic tale Winnie the Pooh. The tiny Sister (as she has always been called around here) couldn’t wait to put it on. (Looking back now, I wonder what happened, because we would have to pay her to wear dresses now.) We snapped a picture, penned a thank you drawing in childlike scribble, and attached the requisite payment.

When trip time came, the set was carefully wrapped in our luggage. Sister saved the dress for the big day – the one where we got to eat at the restaurant with her new babies. Yesterday, I mentioned that we were exposed to some insane behavior while waiting entry to the café. As much fun as enjoying a great meal while using our imaginations was, I don’t, for one minute, believe my daughter’s life would be irreparably damaged if it didn’t happen. That was mild compared to some of the other things we heard as we were being escorted to our seats.

Just when I thought all was safe, I was in no way prepared for watching the exchange that followed shortly thereafter. We had snapped a few pictures with the girls while waiting for our orders to be taken. It was during this time that a mom came rushing over to the table to inquire about Sister’s dress.

penny 2

In about the most exasperated tone: Where did you get that dress? Dahling, I simply must have it! Wherever did you find it? I have looked this entire store over, and I KNOW that dress is not in this store.

Now in this lady’s defense, outside of our table most of the little girls and dolls were wearing matching outfits that had been previously purchased at the American Girl store.

My eyebrows almost reached my hairline on this one. Just as I was about to open my mouth to explain, the spitfire, known as Sister, popped up out of her chair, plopped her hands on her little hips, and stood eyeball to eyeball (okay probably more like eyeball to hip, but her confidence exuded eyeball), and said, “My Mama made it, and I paid a penny for it.”

penny 3

Mouth agape, the woman turned and looked at me. I thought she somewhat deserved the sassy retort. When I explained Sister had asked her great-grandmother to make the dresses, the inquisitor was saddened to learn she couldn’t purchase one for her little girl. As she turned to walk away, she said with all sincerity, “You are one lucky little girl.”

Lady, you don’t know the half of it.

The little girl who almost wasn’t, because she was born dead and brought back to life, was about the most adored little Southern girl, north of the Mason Dixon line. Not a day goes by that we don’t forget that she is a miracle just being here. She is a beloved child of God, who let us have her despite her rough start.

The homemade little dress is beautiful. My Mama’s stitching is incredible, but it pales in comparison to God’s handiwork of love, the creation of a family. Someday she will pass the dress (which is safely tucked away) to her little girl. And when she does, she will able to tell of all the love that her Mama sewed in every stitch of a penny dress!


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