The Orchid Dress
Alvina and Delia’s Dress Shop was not only the swankiest boutique in Waterville, Maine in the early 1960s; it may have been the only dress boutique for miles around. The two exotic names puzzled me. My mother and I would window shop there as we walked down Main Street on our way to Woolworth’s, a store that fit our budget better. A week before my piano recital when I was twelve years old, an orchid dress was displayed in the boutique’s window. My mother was captivated by it.
“Do you like it?” asked my mother without turning her head away from the dress to look at me.
“It’s pretty,” I answered, thinking no harm done in agreeing with her as there was no way in hell we would be able to afford anything in Alvina’s. I could be compliant in this case.
“Let’s go in and try it on.”
“Don’t think they’d have my size,” I immediately said to no one as my mother was already through the store door. I followed her.
The inside of the boutique was completely foreign to any shopping I previously experienced. The roomy shop displayed bouquets of flowers on pedestals here and there. There were velour seats as well. Racks were small. No huge collections of the same dress in long lines of rack upon rack. A well-dressed woman greeted us and asked if she could help. I thought she took a second to look Mom and I up and down in a concerned manner, but Mom didn’t seem to notice. She asked what sizes the orchid dress in the window came in as we were shopping for a special outfit for me. Much to my surprise, the saleswoman announced she thought she had one that would fit me and disappeared.
“It’s part of our young ladies’ attire,” she said to us as she reappeared a couple minutes later with a copy of the dress in the window that looked like it just might fit.
“My daughter will try it on, please,” my mother said. She turned and plunked down on one of the velour seats.
Nervously, I followed the saleslady into the fitting room. A velour seat was waiting in there, too. I watched her unzip the dress as it hung on a decorative hook. I tried to remember what I had on for underwear. I was not thinking about trying on anything at Alvina and Delia’s when we left the house earlier. I didn’t have a slip on, for goodness sake, as I was wearing slacks. I started to unbutton my blouse.
“Holler if you need help with the zipper, darling,” said the saleslady with a definite look of condescension. She left me alone.
I scrambled into the dress while hoping she would not reenter the fitting room and notice that the front of my bra scrunched where I didn’t have enough to fill it out. I didn’t really need a bra, but my mother insisted that someone who had hit puberty early and suffered “the curse” deserved to have one even though we couldn’t find one small enough. I managed the zipper of the dress and looked in the mirror. It was a nice color on me. I’d have to do something with my straggly, blonde hair. What would I wear on my feet? Relax, I told myself. No way can Mom actually afford to buy this.
“Cherie, come on out and let us see you,” Mom said. I pushed the curtain of the fitting room aside and stepped out to see my mother still on her velour chair. The saleslady stood behind her with her head held high. A bit too high I thought to myself.
“She’s a beautiful young lady,” the saleslady announced. With buck teeth that desperately need braces, I added in my head. My mother just smiled.
“Cherie, you will be the prettiest girl at the piano recital next week. We’ll take it,” Mom said.
“How much is it?” I asked.
“That’s for your mother and I to discuss, sweetheart. Let me start that zipper for you,” said the saleslady.
I was horrified. I knew my father would have a fit when we went home with this dress. There was no way my mother could hide spending this much for something.
While I was still pulling on my slacks, the saleslady reached in and grabbed the dress from the fitting room. Heavens, she must want to complete the sale quickly before my mother comes to her senses, I decided. I joined Mom at the counter where the cash register resided and noticed both the saleslady and she were chatting pleasantly. I was handed a box with handles on one side and Alvina and Delia’s decorating it in big print.
“Good luck with your recital, dear,” said the clerk.
I said nothing. Mom and I walked out. I felt like we had robbed a bank. How would we walk into the house with this box? We skipped going to Woolworth’s that day. I never asked why. I figured my poor mother didn’t have a cent to her name now.
All the way home I guiltily thought about the last practice I went to where my piano teacher Mrs. McInnis had been so frustrated, she rapped my fingers against the keys and scolded me for being lazy. I deserved it. I had not practiced my recital piece. I also knew from other students in the waiting room she wouldn’t drop me from her lessons as she had threatened from time to time as she was widowed and needed the money. I was an underserving brat, and here I was with this box on my knees that contained the most expensive dress I ever owned in my life. I was almost hoping my father would notice the box, confront my mother, and insist she return it. He didn’t. He was late getting home that evening. The dress was put in my room.
The next day after school, I sat down at our big upright piano in the living room of our old farmhouse. I stretched my fingers as I looked at the grape work on the old, mahogany instrument. I did scales I had almost forgotten as I never warmed up the way I was trained to by Mrs. McInnis. I glared at the sheet music of my recital piece. Debussy! What was Mrs. McInnis thinking? She was the Clair de Looney Tunes! I stumbled through it a half dozen times. I stopped and wondered if my mother noticed I was practicing. She had to hear me from the kitchen. Nothing was said about it at supper.
I practiced for the next six days. Mom never made any comments. The evening of the recital I felt somewhat elegant in my orchid dress. My mother let me put on a slight touch of her lipstick. My hair looked the best it ever could considering the skimpy, fine mess it was. I knew better than to ask about nylon stockings. White, lacy socks under my black patent leathers with the straps tucked backward would have to do. My older brothers fought in the car all the way to Mrs. McInnis’ house even though my dad fussed at them from behind the wheel. He commented about how nice I looked in my purple dress. I sneaked a guilty look at Mom.
“It’s orchid, actually, Al,” my mother told him. She turned and smiled at me from the front seat. I stopped breathing for a minute, but we continued on to the recital.
I did a decent job of Clair de Lune at Mrs. McInnis’ baby grand piano. We used that for recital instead of her worn upright in the corner reserved for lessons. Mrs. McInnis found me during the cookie reception after everyone had played and gave me a knowing look.
“Someone broke down and practiced, Miss Grant,” she said. “Perhaps that could be continued next fall.”
“Huh, yes,” I mumbled with a mouthful of cookies. I was glad neither of my parents or either one of my snitches of brothers were around to overhear her.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. That summer my mother divorced my father. I moved into a small apartment with my mother and one brother. The older one escaped the chaos by joining the Navy. Piano lessons were out of the question even though my mother paid a heavy price to have help moving the piano into our small new place. As I look back now, I wonder if my mother tried to soften the blow of our future for me by buying that orchid dress. Parents are funny like that.