Do certain topics run in streaks for you? Does one theme pop up in different things you’re reading, watching, or doing for a few weeks? Or is it our subconscious seeking out similar topics without us being aware it? Either way—just lately—the theme in my life has been white dresses. It’s been in everything I’m reading and has a peculiar relevancy to my real life.
Initially, in mid-September we were focused on the wedding of my stepdaughter and her fiancé on a lovely fall day in Madison, Wisconsin. The only glitch was a potentially disastrous broken zipper on the bride’s wedding dress a few minutes before the ceremony. All was fixed by a handy (almost) mother-in-law with a sewing kit and skill with a needle and thread. The ceremony continued with barely a delay. Disaster averted! While her dress was THE most important one of the day, the rest of the women in the family spent plenty of time finding our perfect dresses, too.
I am willing to concede that my real-life preoccupation with wedding finery may have influenced how much I adored two books I read recently—Vintage by Susan Gloss and White Dresses by Mary Pflum Peterson.
Both of these books focus on the importance of outfits worn for special occasions and all of the memories those days hold—happy or sad. In the case of Vintage by Susan Gloss, it’s a never-ending wonder of second-hand but well-loved items, including one particular 1950s wedding dress that comes and goes from her fictional vintage clothing store in Madison, Wisconsin. And in Mary Pflum Peterson’s memoir she tells the endearing and enduring story of a daughter’s love for a flawed but affectionate mother through the white dresses they both have worn for the most important occasions in their lives.
I am in love with both of these books for so many reasons.
Vintage gives us a wonderful cast of mostly female characters at different stages in their lives who form a rather unlikely group of friends, suffering life’s trials together from the hub of the vintage clothing store. Susan Gloss intertwined these characters’ lives (and the story of their second-hand clothing) in a fascinating plot that leads us to a more than satisfying conclusion. Additionally, I always enjoy reading about locations I am familiar with, and this book didn’t disappoint, mentioning many of Madison’s favorite places.
The description of locations was even more enjoyable for me in Mary Pflum Peterson’s memoir White Dresses, which follows her life and the life of her mother through the white dresses they have worn. The author grew up in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin and frequented many of the same places that I did—The Beaver Bootery for children’s shoes, Lads & Lassies for the best in kid fashion (and first communion dresses), St. Peter’s Catholic Church, and even the local Piggly Wiggly. This is where I had my very peripheral contact with Mary and her mother when I was a cashier there in the late 1980s. I am about four years older than Mary and have to admit to feeling sorry for her as she looked so uncomfortable (at least to me) when her Mom would chastise us for not bagging her groceries in just the right way. I wasn’t alone in thinking that Mrs. Pflum was a difficult customer, but what I didn’t understand was that she was so much more. Through this insightful and at times painful memoir, her daughter writes of her mother’s triumphs, failures, and obstacles---oh, so many obstacles. I am ashamed that as a teenage cashier I had not yet learned the lesson about not judging others unless we had walked a mile in their shoes.
The author’s mother did not have an easy life, which translated into a not-so-happy childhood for her daughter. While love was abundant, stability was not, and the author brilliantly weaves the parade of white dresses through the complex array of human experience that made her mother who she was. Christening gowns, First Communion dresses, graduation dresses, and wedding dresses are the co-stars in this story. We feel the excitement, nervousness, and even trepidation of the wearer of these gowns. Most intriguing of all was the white gown worn by the author’s mother as she took her vows as a nun. The story of her time at the convent and her subsequent decision to leave was one of the most heart wrenching of the entire book.
Mary Pflum Peterson is indeed a skilled writer, having honed her talent through decades of work as an Emmy Award-winning journalist. I am sure that choosing to tell this story and relive the most difficult moments of her life was not an easy task for her, but I am so very grateful that she did. This memoir speaks to all of us and our own white-dress moments, but most of all it acknowledges the vast (and sometimes difficult) love between a mother and a daughter. Truly, the author’s love for her mother—flaws and all—is the most endearing tribute one could hope for.