The Red Dress
I can’t remember how many times I had reminded Art to replace the basement’s fire alarm. He was always “going to do it.” And then the fire happened.
By the time the first floor fire alarm awakened me, the flames had burned through the basement and began licking at the stairs leading to the second floor. We barely had enough time to frantically run down the hallway, awaken Mark and Mindy, grab the dog, and dash through the patio doors on to the second floor deck and away from the billowing smoke. Thank God we had decided to add steps to the second floor deck.
Hours later when the tears dried and shock and disbelief yielded to gratitude that everyone had escaped unharmed, we stood looking at the pile of smoldering ruins that represented everything we owned. I spotted it first, and then Mindy. Untouched by flames, and in the middle of a mound of ashes lay a picture of Mindy wearing a red velvet dress with laced collar.
Art stepped gingerly through the ruins to retrieve the picture. As we stood looking down at the image of Mindy all aglow with smiles and the shimmer of velvet, my thoughts reached back in time to another day and another fire.
I was Mindy’s age – nine years old and poor. Several days before the Christmas pageant at our church, my Mom and I went shopping at a Goodwill store to buy a dress for me. Among the rows of recycled clothes my eyes fell on a red velvet dress with a black velvet collar.
“Momma,” I shouted. “What about this one? It looks so pretty, and I think it’ll fit.”
“All right, Cindy, let’s try it on.”
We walked back to the dressing room. I could hardly wait to put it on. All at once I was both Shirley Temple dancing and twirling in my “new” dress, and Goldilocks finding a chair just her size.
All the way home, I clung tightly to the bag that held my dress. I had never owned a dress that looked so elegant and fit so well. For once in my life I could forget how poor I was, how much I wanted to dress like “the other girls.”
Back home, I spread the dress carefully on my cot and watched how the glimmers of light from the window danced in shades of red. When night fell I kissed my magnificent possession, laid it gently on the chair beside my bed and drifted off to sleep.
I awoke to the sound of muffled voices and veiled visions of figures moving about in white uniforms.
“She’s waking up.” The words drifted out from beyond the muffled voices. When I opened my eyes, I noticed Momma’s face anxiously peering into mine. Tears began to drift down her cheeks.
“Oh, honey, I’m so glad you’re awake.”
“Where am I? Why am I here?”
Momma leaned closer.
“There was a fire, Cindy . Her voice faltered. “I almost lost you.”
“Oh, Momma,” I moaned, “what about my red dress?”
“Honey, I’m afraid it’s gone. We lost everything.”
In that moment, I lost the cloak of innocence that insulates every child against life’s uncertainties. Lying helpless in a hospital bed and surrounded by tubes and beeping sounds, I learned that what we cherish can so easily be taken away.
Momma gently wiped my tears.
“Don’t cry Cindy. I know how much that dress meant to you.”
Almost every day I shared with Momma how much I missed my red dress. One day, after school, I returned home to find an envelope on my bed. Inside the envelope was the picture of the dress that looked almost like the one I remembered. Tears filled my eyes. Why would Momma want to remind me of something so painful?
I dropped the picture, ran towards her and buried my face in her apron. I could feel her arms tightened around my shoulders. We stood in silence. She felt my pain, but I did not know hers. Then Momma spoke and I thought she was going to cry.
“Cindy, let’s take one last look at the picture before we throw it away. It’s not good for you to always be looking back and wishing for what you don’t have."
What seemed cruel was wisdom framed by love.
I looked out on the rubble of what was once our home and remembered Momma’s words.
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