Today I bought a dress. It was displayed inside an open steamer trunk—the fancy kind with a miniature built-in closet and collapsible wooden clothes hangers. At first, I thought the garment was a blouse, because everything from the waist down was pooled in the depths of the trunk. The young woman tending the store called it a “tea dress” as she carefully lifted it out. It was made in the late 1930s or early 1940s—black rayon with a panel of cream-colored cotton lace on the breast. One of the side seams had come apart slightly, and the original shoulder pads were wizened with age and dangling by threads. But I saw that the split could be mended and the pads removed altogether, and the dress was otherwise in perfect condition.
The very first magical object I coveted was an antique poetry book. It lived on the second shelf from the bottom in one of my parents’ many bookcases, and it was easy to spot because the spines of the books on either side were not bound in cream-colored leather embossed with golden print. Before I could read, I often pulled out this book to examine it more closely. The leather spine was soft as the skin on the back of my mother’s hands. The hard front and back covers were sprinkled with tiny yellow flowers and green leaves on a pale ground, and were cool and glassy to the touch. Inside was a misty piece of paper, and peering through the mist was the face of the man who wrote the book. After that were all the words I could not read.
About the same time, I fell in love with the Bavarian bone china cup-and-saucer sets that lived on top of the buffet in my grandparents’ dining room. My grandmother, who died when I was four, had collected them one by one. They were all different patterns and colors. Some years later, my grandfather’s second wife allowed me to take them down and handle them when I visited each summer. I didn’t play with them; I was deadly serious. I studied and memorized them, and to this day, although only several sets are left intact, when I unwrap any one of them from its tissue paper nest, I can see all of them before me once again—summoning briefly that bright expanse of possibility with which my youthful imagination had invested them.
As an adult, I have haunted second-hand and antique stores, never having much money to spend, emerging into the daylight, afterward, with an almost unbearable sense of loss even on those rare occasions when I’ve been able to buy what I wanted, because what I really want is to rescue them all—all the venerable objects made of glass, of metal, of wood, of porcelain, used and used again and then silent on a shelf, used by no one.
I’ve given different people different reasons for my recent relocation from New York City to Sioux Falls, South Dakota—all of them true—but it wouldn’t be wrong to say that I came here for the antiques. I can afford to rescue a lot more of them in Sioux Falls than in New York, and although I am fifty-one years old, I still believe that I will find the key to life wedged on a shelf of humanity’s finely tooled flotsam and jetsam: pink Depression glass tumblers cheek by jowl with seed company tin thermometers, moustache cups, button-filled Bell jars, wooden butter paddles, hoary cocktail shakers packed with sixty years’ worth of souvenir swizzle sticks: The Moonlight Inn, The Pines Supper Club, Valhalla.
When I walk into an antique store, I enter as savior and supplicant, aware that my own salvation mysteriously depends upon snatching these remnants of the dead back from their oblivion: a monogrammed silver cruet set, a carefully mended damask tablecloth with twelve matching napkins, a spirit level, a rug beater, a kraut cutter, a sealskin lap rug backed with russet silk—all of them worthy, unchanged, and left behind.
If I were still living in New York City, the dress I found in the steamer trunk would have been too expensive to buy, but if I had somehow bought it anyway, I would have brought it straight to my mother for mending. Instead, I asked the young woman in the shop if she knew of a nearby dry cleaner’s offering tailoring and repairs. The blank expression on her otherwise friendly face told me that employing on-site tailors in dry cleaning establishments is likely more of a New York convention. But she brightened up and told me about a woman right down the street in the Carpenter Hotel who does mending and wedding alterations.
The renovation of the Carpenter Hotel—once grand, then seedy, then derelict, and now restored as a combination of high-end rental apartments above and small businesses below—was one of the harbingers of the downtown Sioux Falls renaissance. The lobby is lined with marble the color of milk chocolate, and nothing is moving in here but me. The street noise outside on Phillips Avenue vanishes entirely upon entry. On the building directory inside the front doors, I quickly spot Alterations by Elvera, located in Room 207. The stairs are also made of marble, with slight satin concavities along the front edges of each step, formed by over a century of shod feet climbing.
The second floor hallway has modern, wall-to-wall carpeting, but the original oak woodwork is intact: elegant moldings and wainscoting, heavy chamber doors, generous transoms. Around 1910, the Carpenter must have been the fanciest hotel for hundreds of miles in any direction. Back then, Sioux Falls was booming with the proceeds of cattle, crops, lumber, and railway freight. It was an overgrown, scullduggerous town full of promise, with a courthouse like a castle, a cathedral on the hill, and a Carnegie Library downtown. Because in the early twentieth century the passenger railway system across the United States was in its glory, Sioux Falls was no more difficult to get to than any other place, and people from all over the world passed through, some staying. It is said that during World War I, a Russian anarchist on a passing train threw an incendiary device into the original Harvester warehouse, starting a conflagration that burned the building to the ground, but was stopped before spreading to the rest of downtown and the nearby Carpenter Hotel.
I count numbers on closed doors, and as I near 207, I hear voices—an old woman with an accent and a young man whose tone, even from a distance, is apologetic. These sounds are encouraging, since the second floor of the Carpenter Hotel is clearly a place where business owners may as easily be absent as present.
The door of 207 is wide open. At a glance, I see that the flushed and portly young man has made it through his fitting and re-donned his regular trousers, and they are now discussing the nature of time. Elvera, a tall, stately woman with a tape measure around her neck, a silver bun, and a faraway stare, declares that when he is married he will have to pay attention to the clock and the calendar. Twelve noon is not midnight. A Sunday is not a Monday. May is not December. He is sorry—very, very sorry—for coming back at the last minute. What with the wedding and everything, he hasn’t kept track of time or his weight. He can’t believe he’s gained almost ten pounds. This morning, he thought the scale was broken.
Elvera assures him that she will make the white tuxedo pants fit. In order to do so, she will work on Sunday. The light reflects off her wire-rimmed glasses.
They pause in their conversation, noticing me in the doorway. Elvera motions me in, gestures at three chairs against the wall near the door. She turns back to the young man. It’s good to have work, she says. Even on a Sunday.
While they conclude their arrangements, I look around the crowded room. Everything is organized, but there’s a lot of it: a raised platform for fittings in front of a three-paneled standing mirror, a large painted crucifix on one wall, clothing of all kinds all over—inside out, upside down, pressed and neatly hanging—an intricate cuckoo clock with an audible tick tock on another wall, and almost obscured by stuff, beside a blue rotary phone, there is a yellowed newspaper obituary clipped to a solitary metal bookend with one standard paperclip. The obituary is seven years old and the man’s name—like Elvera’s accent—is Russian. His face, gazing out of its small, inky box, is commanding. The rest of the newsprint is too small to read from where I am sitting.
The soon-to-be-married young gentleman leaves, still apologizing, with a harassed nod of acknowledgment in my direction. Elvera turns and smiles expectantly. And so?
The knowledge that she is already in a position of having to work on Sunday makes me hesitate. It’s a tiny job. It’s not urgent.
You show me.
I lift the dress out of the bag, mentioning the new vintage shop up the street where I bought it. I explain about the side seam and the shoulder pads. I should be able to do this for myself. Many, many years ago, my mother taught me how to sew, but . . .
Elvera looks up from the dress in her large hands. Is your mother alive?
I tell her yes. I explain that my husband and I moved to Sioux Falls just recently, that I am no longer living near my mother, who can sew or knit or crochet or mend anything under the sun.
Elvera nods. Is she German, your mother?
My mother’s ancestors, like my father’s, immigrated to the United States of America from Germany in the nineteenth century. They were farm people, hoping for land. They came through Ellis Island, and up the Mississippi River to Davenport, Iowa, from where they spread—mostly northwards to Minnesota and South Dakota, which is how both my parents came to grow up in small towns not far from Sioux Falls, although they moved to New York City in the 1960s after my father finished law school at the University of Minnesota and received an unexpected job offer from a firm out east. That is how I came to grow up in Brooklyn.
My parents live in Brooklyn. But they are both from here, originally. My mother’s ancestors came from Germany, way back when.
My answer sounds disjointed, even to me, but Elvera nods.
Then sewing is in her blood. And maybe yours?
I wonder if Elvera is a mind reader on the side. Room 207, with its draped fabrics and muffled ticking, is not unlike a fortune-teller’s den into which I once wandered while staying in New Orleans. That woman turned out to be a phony, but Elvera is correct: ever since getting to Sioux Falls, and moving into the old house we bought, I have been wanting a sewing machine—maybe something newer than my mother’s pedal-operated Singer that lives upside down, wombat-like, in its cabinet when not in use, but a sewing machine nonetheless.
I imagine that I will start by making napkins and tablecloths. I will work up from there. One day I will design and sew my own clothes. When I politely ended the sewing lessons my mother had been giving me, I was fourteen years old and had just completed a sleeveless cotton muumuu. The fabric was cornflower blue with vertical trellises of pink and white flowers.
I’m not as clever with my hands as my mother is.
Elvera reaches out, takes my right hand, turns it palm up, looks at it intently. It’s a good hand. And your mother’s hand will guide you.
I am aware of having strayed, somehow, from the path of my day, and am wondering what my next step should be, when Elvera drops my hand and bustles toward a curtained alcove at the back of the room. She will do this job for me right now, this minute. Otherwise it will never get done. It is too small to delay.
I hear the sound of a sewing machine part being raised, adjusted, lowered—a familiar series of click-clacks from my youth. I sit down again, and realize that somewhere in the room a radio is playing with the volume turned way down.
My mother made a number of her own clothes when she was growing up—even her prom dresses and her wedding dress. She also made my wedding dress out of green silk velvet, using a retro-inspired pattern we chose together. My mother’s mother took in mending jobs for pocket money. Neighbors or people from her church would bring pants to be hemmed or let out, ripped seams to be sewn up again, and sometimes they wanted dolls’ clothes. When I was growing up in Brooklyn, my grandmother sewed flannel nightgowns for me and my younger sister every Christmas—sometimes with matching ruffled caps.
When we visited my maternal grandparents in the summers, I was always struck by the fact that their bedroom, a tiny space that opened off the living room, had a curtain in place of a door. The curtain hung on a tension rod, and my grandfather, who adhered to an early-to-bed, early-to-rise plan, would bark goodnight-don’t-slam-the-screen-door to us at exactly eight o’clock every evening, and retire to bed, drawing the curtain shut behind him like a puppet show cut short. Next we’d hear the one-two clunk of his work boots hitting the linoleum on his side of the bed. Soon, terrible snores would issue from within, and we cousins, full of the intoxicating freedoms of summer, would rush laughing outdoors to play a game of tag called Ghost, while the fireflies came out and the bats flew.
I remember that I have in my wallet only thirteen dollars cash. On the wall in Room 207 is a sign stating in faded ink that credit cards are not accepted, only cash and personal checks. I regret not having asked how much this job will cost. The last time I brought a vintage dress to any tailor was years ago, in New York, when my mother had broken her wrist. At that time, in that place, more or less the same job cost thirty-two dollars—not counting the dry cleaning. Almost everything is cheaper in Sioux Falls than New York, but even with the geographical discount, it seems unlikely that thirteen dollars will be enough.
Next, I remember—with inordinate relief—that my husband and I now have a personal checking account at a local bank in Sioux Falls and my checkbook is in my purse. People around here are often unhappy about accepting out-of-state checks, and sometimes refuse outright to do so. Although I’ve just met Elvera, already I don’t want to disappoint her.
Recently, I’ve wondered if I stopped sewing because I just couldn’t stand doing clumsily a thing that my mother did so gracefully and with such expertise. After all, the cooking lessons suffered the same fate. Easy and common enough for the self-protective phrase I don’t like to displace the upsetting words I’m no good at. But then how does any child learn anything from any parent?
I was envied by my childhood friends, most of whose mothers worked outside the home and were often tired and short tempered as a result. My mother was never too busy to design projects for us and superintend them: taffy making, gingerbread men, homemade paper dolls in need of vast wardrobes. In good weather, she would sit for hours on the front steps of our apartment building on Schermerhorn Street, watching as we played games of hopscotch or skated to the end of the block and back in our clamp-on metal roller skates that seemed designed to amplify, rather than cushion us from, the uneven textures of the much-repaired Brooklyn sidewalks, their cement admixed with starry fragments of local sea shells.
Not long ago, my mother referred to an episode in the distant past that she clearly thought I remembered, but that I did not—at least, not right away. As an intrepid, first-time mother, she had discovered, in a popular 1960s parenting publication, a method of teaching very young children to read, and tried it out on me when I was two or three years old. The method involved printing the words for common objects around the home on posterboard—she cut hers from the thin, white pieces of cardboard that came inside my father’s freshly laundered and folded office shirts—and affixing the words to the objects: chair, door, bed, refrigerator, oven, wall.
As my mother spoke, through the intervening haze of almost fifty years, I suddenly saw those black words, floating on their white oblongs, posted all over our first apartment in Brooklyn, the one we lived in until I was four. I saw again my mother’s distinctive handwriting—sprightly, good-girl letters. This was confusing, though, because hard on the heels of that vision came the distinct memory of learning to read in the first grade, in Miss Burke’s class, when I was five. When I told my mother this, she explained that she had ended the reading lessons and taken down the words, because while I had initially learned them as fast as she could put them up, and she had been exultant, inexplicably I had then started refusing to participate—and become cranky. Fearing that persistence on her part might poison me against reading forever, she stopped.
I am staring again at the no credit cards accepted sign—ornamented with a bit of boilerplate scrollwork along the sides—when Elvera emerges from the alcove, pushing aside the flowered curtain, tea dress in hand.
Now I will tell you something.
I stand up with no idea of what’s coming next—like a child in a doctor’s office.
This is a beautiful dress. It will look lovely on you. But you must not wear it—not even to try it—without cleaning first. You must take it to the dry cleaner’s and get rid of—some bad spirit.
Elvera nods at length, watching me closely from behind her spectacles to gauge whether or not I believe her. I’m telling you, my dear, clothes have ghosts—the same like houses.
Of course I believe her. Although I haven’t pulled it over my head since I completed it thirty-seven years ago, I still have that muumuu. Whenever I’ve taken it out of the back of my closet, intending to get rid of it at last, I’ve been forestalled by the incontrovertible evidence of what a good job I did, and by the patient shade of an alternate, more confident self—the kind of ghost we all have, the ghost of who we might have been, hovering just beyond the edges of who we are.
Reaching for my new First National Bank checkbook, I ask Elvera how much I owe her. She hesitates, glancing around the premises as if to remind herself that she is in business, although it might as well be a room in her own house. But perhaps after her husband died, she sold the house and moved to an apartment. That’s what my grandmother did—a subsidized apartment on the top floor of the lone high-rise in Madison, South Dakota, with a small balcony and a bona fide bedroom door.
Well, it wasn’t much of a job, but things take time all the same. Things take time. Elvera looks past me, as if she is seeing something far outside the walls of Room 207. Two dollars.
The words two dollars hang in the air. Chair. Mirror. Curtain. Clock. Tick. Tock.
I want to give her more money but do not, for fear of displeasing her. I silently resolve to return soon, bringing a more expensive job. Surely, something in my possession will suffer a complicated, jagged tear before I’ve taught myself to sew again.
Outside on Phillips Avenue, balls of sunlight carom off the glass pates of old parking meters. I walk several blocks in the direction of home, lost in thought, before recalling that I now own a car, and that I drove downtown in it when I set out to visit the vintage store.
Eventually, after I learned to read, I took the magical book off the shelf and opened it with the eagerness that is indistinguishable from anxiety—tight chest, short breath, choppy stomach—as well as the shining confidence that I would now be able to decipher the secret message hidden for me inside. I did not doubt it would be waiting for me, because that’s what secret messages do.
The book was a collection of poems by Robert Burns, the nineteenth-century Scottish poet who wrote popular verse in the style of the day. Wee mousies frisked and many objects were auld. I pulled the beautiful volume out again and again while I was growing up, imagining myself to be a poet, but for all my desire, I could not attach myself to the poems inside it. They would not open for me. The book is still in its place on the shelf in Brooklyn, and I have not touched it for many years. The older you get, the more your secret message rips open to divulge yet another message—a simpler one, befitting the fewer years you have left in which to live and learn.
As I walk toward the place I left my car, eyes narrowed against the sun, I think about my mother’s hands, larger than my own and invariably capable. It has now mostly faded, but she used to have a singular birthmark—a perfectly smooth, fawn-colored archipelago drifting across the back of one wrist. With this unbidden memory comes an inexpressible sense of comfort, a wordless mantle of goodness issuing from some inaccessible cave within me, wrapping me as I walk. But even as I strain to keep hold of its edges, they fragment in my grasp, evaporating into the busy molecules of this revitalized Phillips Avenue, in this small city on the upper plains of the American Midwest, where my people once lived, under this endless, wordless blue.