I removed the white net gown from the hanger; its taffeta lining rustled. My mother’s backless slippers were making flapping sounds as she approached my room. She was carrying a long rectangle of the matching net.
“Here. This goes over your shoulders.”
I looked at the length and burst out laughing. “It’ll end up at my hemline.”
She placed the shawl-like thing around my petite frame. “Well, you won’t be dancing with it.” Stroking my silky hair she dramatically said, “Prom. The Hotel Roosevelt’s ballroom. Oh how lovely!”
I wasn’t even sixteen yet, and I could see my mother’s expression of ‘my daughter is getting older’. I didn’t know whether to shift my position or just hold it for her to continue with forthcoming flowery-phrases. A boy I’d met in summer camp in the Berkshire Mountains lived in The Bronx, and it was his school’s prom. My mother graduated from a Bronx high school; if proms existed in those days, she didn’t mention it. I couldn’t imagine her young anyway.
I didn’t like that stole or even the name for this absurd shawl. It wasn’t going to keep me warm, nor was it a decoration: it just was. “You know, Mom, a see-through jacket or coat over this dress would make more sense and have some style. Even a little cape would be pretty.”
“Hm. Yes.” My mother agreed. “I have no time to sew a cape for you as your date will be here soon.”
Now I didn’t know if she were teasing me or not.
“You’ll look glamorous.”
Well, I’m the wholesome type, I knew, with all the genetic assets, but I’d rather walk barefoot in the rain, play hard at sports, toss raked leaves on my head and have them cling to my wool sweaters than be glamorous. To me, that very word connoted ‘stuck up’ or phony, and I was never-ever going to be that. Ever. I parted my hair in the middle and inserted, on each side, little flowers I’d hand-made of tiny pieces of silk. The Bobby-pins still showed too much. I tried again.
I slid the Benrus Embraceable watch on my wrist. I enjoyed both the white gold and that it actually looked as if I were wearing a bracelet. My only make-up was my usual Powder-Pink color lipstick; I also liked my skin and saw no need to cover up even a blemish as that was also phony. In a tiny purse I put my ‘mad-money,’ house keys, handkerchief, the lipstick, and a small comb my mother bought me with a Mother-of-Pearl handle. She’d given me a matching compact, but I didn’t use powder, I told her, and it’s not ladylike to open a mirror and preen in front of other people, and she could give the compact to one of my sisters. She didn’t.
My mother zipped up the dress, and had tears in her eyes. Was it the prom, or that she realized one-day she’d be buttoning up the back of my wedding gown? That one-day was certainly in the future, so I wasn’t sure which was causing tears. We went downstairs. I never kept a date waiting and never planned to either.
He came. The white dinner jacket made him look grown up. He had a see-through box and an orchid was enclosed. My mother gushed. Geez. I thought he knew me from camp; I’m the single fragrant gardenia or sweet-pea type. The orchid was the pretentious-glamour type. I’d guessed his father bought it for him to give to me.
“Oh, this is beautiful. Isn’t it, Lois?” My mother was so excited for me. She tried to pin it onto my gown and it kept helplessly sagging. “Wait. I’ve got more corsage pins in my sewing basket.”
I wound the shawl several times around my arms. My dad offered to drive us to the city so we wouldn’t have to take the Long Island Railroad and then walk from Penn Station. We got into his 1948 model Oldsmobile as he hadn’t yet bought a newer 1950’s style. My mother stood in the doorway waving.
“Where are you going after the prom?” My dad was pleasant and kind, as always, and not making judgments or anything.
“Bill Miller’s Riviera in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Most are going to the Copa in the city, but we’re going with another couple to New Jersey.” My date was happy about his choice. He hadn’t yet mentioned that no one had a car and didn’t know how we would get to Jersey and back from there.
“A beautiful choice,” my dad answered, his gentle hands holding the steering wheel. “The Palisades, and just going over the bridge and back sounds wonderful. How’re you getting there late at night?”
“Um. Don’t know yet.” My date smoothed a section that wasn’t even wrinkled on his white jacket.
“Let me know when to take you.” My dad looked at us from his rear view mirror. “And we can fit another couple with no problem.”
“Mr. Greene. I don’t know what to say. Prom parties go on most of the night.”
“That’s okay. Make sure you have coins for the pay phones. Just call.” My dad smiled. I knew his dimples were showing even though I couldn’t see them from the back seat.
The word Riviera seemed special. I liked the George Washington Bridge so going over that twice would also be special. And it was a special nightclub.
“Have a wonderful evening.” My dad tilted his head to see us as we got out of the car at the Hotel Roosevelt. “I’ll get you later. You both look sensational.”
We went inside.
21st century now. Seems impossible. I didn’t attend my own high school’s prom as I graduated half a year early. That’s what I said anyway. I did, long ago, like Bill Miller’s Riviera, dancing with my date someplace other than in the summer camp’s boathouse, the ride in the dark in my dad’s car over the bridge, but the ballroom party at the hotel seemed strained. The girl we were seated with pretended to be womanly-worldly and kept pulling out her compact to check her layers of pan-cake make up. I didn’t want another prom-evening of fake smiles and one-upmanship conversation from many around me. She pretended boredom during the evening, and treated my dad as a chauffeur; I didn’t hear her say her own dad would drive us to New Jersey and back in the middle of the night. After my dad took me back home to the Broadway section of Flushing, he then drove my date to The Bronx and then he drove back to Queens. He said he so remembered long subway rides courting my mother who lived in Brooklyn, and didn’t want my date to have to do that.
21st century now. My dad died a month after I turned twenty; he was forty-five. Two years after that, my widow-mother removed, from a hanger in my bedroom, a white lace dress with a lining of taffeta. She buttoned up the back, placed a veil on my head. She stroked my silky hair and her hands evoked memories of years of kindness, patience, understanding. I adjusted my college degree she’d framed and put on the wall, looking for the last time at my girlhood private space, also recalling my first taffeta-lined white gown. Just Powder Pink lipstick was still my make up, and in my tiny bridal purse were similar-few items I’d carried to a prom long ago, minus the ‘mad-money.’
Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items/ photos/ memorabilia are in major museums, including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian.