Western North Carolina Woman

change of a dress
by kerry lee daniel

It was a rainy day in May, perfect for a garage sale. Too bad I didn’t have a garage.

But I was moving and needed to get rid of a lot of things to make way for the stuff of a new life. So I made a garage out of the living room of my second floor apartment.

For weeks I’d gathered together and tagged the items to be sold, including one huge box full of dresses. All were new, still with the original store tags on them. It was an interesting collection, not because they were designed by a fabulous French couturier (they weren’t) but rather for the amazing twists and turns my life had taken that had caused those dresses to hang out in my closet all those years, never seeing the light of day.

I’m a tomboy, for heaven’s sake. So, dresses were a source of excruciating pain and aggravation for me. Every year after I left the comfort of the family nest, my mother grew increasingly alarmed by the large number of jeans, slacks, polo shirts, sweat shirts, men’s shirts and other assorted “unladylike” clothing that filled my closet and spilled from the dresser drawers. For her it was a bad sign. This was not the life she wanted for me. So she embarked on a personal campaign to turn me into a lady. As each birthday or gift-giving holiday approached, she would call me and say, “I’m going to buy you a dress. What evening would you like to go shopping?” Now, you can imagine I was busting at the seams to work that special event into my social calendar.

Each dress-buying junket was an hours-long ordeal. It didn’t matter what color or style they were, I hated them all. Eventually, though, I had to pick something or the clerks would threaten to lock me in the store for the night so they could go home. Mother always took the prize purchase home with her to wrap like a surprise.
So there you have it – 7 years of birthday, Easter, and Christmas dresses. Voilà, a treasure trove of at least 21 brand-spankin’ new-never-been-worn dresses just waiting for the eager throng of garagesalers that May morning.

There were squeals of delight throughout my living room as people found items they just couldn’t live without. By far the happiest noises, though, came from an area around the huge box of dresses. I’d also thrown in all my bras and they were going like hotcakes. Women and their daughters and friends were ecstatic to find fairly recent fashions, brand new, for just a dollar each. (Those were the days before Ross’s, Marshall’s and T-J Maxx). One woman broke out in a sweat she was so excited, and asked if she could call a friend of hers to come over. I handed her the phone. Then suddenly, in the midst of women pawing over the dresses and trying them on, I heard a bloodcurdling scream. I looked up to see my mother standing there. She had asked me about the sale, but I didn’t mention the dresses. I never dreamed she would come.

She gazed pitifully into the shrinking box of dresses. Just about that time a young woman emerged from the bathroom wearing a blue frock that had been one of Mother’s favorites, and she nearly fainted when she saw the $1.00 tag hanging from the armpit. “I can’t believe you’re selling those beautiful dresses I gave you—and for pennies! Omigod, the original tags are still on them. You never even wore them!?” In that moment I knew exactly what people meant when they talked about “airing the family laundry.”
The garage sale was in 1972. I was twenty-five years old. It was the last time I owned a dress. Though I’ve flirted with bras from time to time since, they are buried beneath more useful items in my underwear drawer. Because no matter how much I spend on them, they refuse to be comfortable and friendly.

Over the years, straight friends have asked me if I stopped wearing dresses because I am a lesbian, or if it happened the other way around. I don’t think wearing or not wearing dresses has a thing to do with one’s sexual orientation, though I do believe that a person’s clothing in some sense defines them. And I always believed women in dresses were not taken as seriously. Occasionally, more curious friends will ask me, “Is there a moment that stands out in your memory when you realized you were gay?” It’s amazing; I do remember that first moment of awareness. I didn’t know the name for what I was feeling or what it meant in terms of my sexual identity, but there’s a definite “Ah-ha” moment crystallized forever in my memory bank. And dress had something to do with it.

I was ten years old, and my mother had diligently worked the 3,650-plus days of my life to that point, trying to make me into a girly girl she could be proud of. She stuffed me in frilly dresses, bought me all the popular dolls, Toni-home-permed my hair, and steered me to Bobbsey Twin books, while I secretly read the Hardy Boys beneath the covers at night.

One chilly February afternoon in 1957, a duet of clicking heels sounded on the sidewalk outside our living room. In the next instant, Mother’s hopes for me flew out the window as I furtively lifted one slat of the Venetian blind. There they were in full view-- two beautiful WACs in crisp uniforms, jackets with slacks, marching shoulder to shoulder up the walk. I had glimpsed them once before as they disappeared up the steps. I knew where they lived, but this was the first time I’d seen their faces. I was certain they had a secret. And I was just as certain I had figured it out. They would walk upstairs, close their apartment door and click-click toward the bedroom overhead. I imagined them kissing. And when the stars came out that night, they would sleep together in the same bed, just above mine, holding hands beneath the covers. Tomorrow they would click-click together down the sidewalk again, to a life I was sure was filled with grand adventure.

I peeped at the WACs for several weeks. Then I wanted to meet them, so one evening I planted myself on the sidewalk where they would have to walk past me. Click-click. One of them smiled as she approached. I introduced myself and pointed to where I lived, the window just below theirs. The dark-haired one said her name was Rebecca. The other held out her hand and said “I’m Linda.” They both smiled when I told them I wanted to grow up and be just like them. Linda gave me her garrison cap as a gesture of friendship. I remember thinking how strong and confident they were. And they didn’t wear dresses.
As the last shoppers left my garage sale, I remembered Rebecca and Linda, and it struck me that if they could see me at that moment they’d be so proud—I grew up to be just like them.

Kerry Lee Daniel is a writer with a lusty appetite for all that is bold, bountiful, and beautiful in life. She is a member of Asheville’s WomanSong, plays with clay when no one’s looking, is cat mom to Barney and Ben, and is a card-carrying member of the Gale Storm fan club. [ Kerrydaniel41@aol.com; 828-628-6826 ]

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