There are many narratives about First Communion dresses (See Raining Stones). They are often about the parents’ struggle. On some level, these dresses are like prom dresses or even wedding dresses. They trigger parents’ need to establish a sense of prestige in their community and a fantasy about who their daughters are. The high stakes of these garments often overshadow any connection to their daughters or even to the ritual events.
How a Dress Can Hold so Much Meaning
A photo was taken of two seven-year-old girls who made their First Communion at the same time. One girl is me; the other is my cousin. Her mother was my mother’s sister, who was an excellent seamstress. She worked for a famous New York fashion house as a sample maker. The model Twiggy wore some of my aunt’s samples in fashion shows.
My mother took me to a local department store and bought my First Communion dress. I wanted a veil with a full crown. My mother refused because she said only queens get to wear crowns. I was heartbroken. I had envisioned what I wanted.
My aunt purchased beautiful, expensive fabric and created her daughter’s dress. Afterward, she took my cousin to a photography studio to take pictures of her daughter and the dress.
That afternoon my aunt showed up unannounced at our home with my cousin wearing her communion dress so she could take a picture of us together. My mother was not happy because I was playing in the yard with my friends, and she didn’t want me to change into my dress and get it dirty.
I didn’t want to take the picture because I thought my cousin’s dress was so much prettier than mine, and she had the full crown and veil that I had wanted. Also, my aunt often used me to show my cousin why she was “the best.” The dress experience was full of shame for me.
A New Perspective
Forty years later, my aunt gave me the photo. I was amazed because my body immediately recognized the shame I felt at having an inferior dress. When I looked closely at the picture, however, I saw how the dresses were almost entirely identical.
The experience of being treated as inferior to my cousin was my designated role in our extended family. It was part of my mother and aunt’s issues with each other.
Letting Go of What Is Not Ours
The picture added new information to the experience. There was no inferior dress nor inferior girl, just a need to support an elaborate illusion that somehow addressed a suffering my mother and aunt experienced. From a felt sense, I played with the photo in Photoshop and removed everything that was not me. Somehow, I found a wise smile hiding in the moment. It helps me remember that the illusions others create do not define me.