The Good Dress
Janet waited her son's verdict with this prayer in her heart: "Oh Lord, make him not ashamed of me!"
Edith Bainbridge Brown
JANET SHEPHERD stood on the front steps of the shabby farmhouse, pulling white cotton gloves over her work-roughened hands while she tried to stifle a ridiculous feeling of guilt.
It was pleasantly cool on the veranda this June morning but in the field by the driveway the young cabbages that Herb and Marty had planted yesterday were wilted flat on the ground. It was going to be hot shopping in the city today. It was really too hot to be wearing gloves at all, but she might as well get used to them, for she hated to have saleswomen staring at her hands, wondering how she got them so scarred and seamed with dirt.
■ She could hear Herb, her husband, backing the car out of the shed to drive her to the station. The engine sounded noisier every day. It needed new pistons and rings. That would have to wait till the bill for last winter’s coal for the greenhouse was paid. The truck needed new tires, too.
Abruptly Janet checked her thoughts.
Outwardly she appeared a placid, rather stout woman in her early fifties, decently dressed in a cheap navy-blue polka dot frock and a matronly black straw hat. Inwardly, she was as tormented with misgivings as a schoolgirl.
In her worn leather purse that had been a handdown from her daughter, Marion, there were six $10 bills. Everywhere »Janet looked, there was some urgent use for this money. Yet she, a homely, middle-aged woman, was about to fling away the $60 on clothes for herself. It was preposterous. It was downright wicked !
But she had to have a good dress and the right things to wear with it for just this once in her life. On the coming Friday, Marty, her son, was graduating from university. At the garden party after the convocation she would have to meet his friends. She could not bear to think he might be embarrassed by her shabbiness when he introduced her to them. Particularly when he introduced her to Joan. Her face grew hot at the idea that Marty might need to be ashamed to present his mother to the girl he loved.
She knew Marty loved Joan, even though he had not told her in so many words. He had first mentioned her one week end when he was home soon after Christmas. Herb was out in the barn and she and Marty were alone in the parlor. Janet was mending socks while Marty studied, the light from the lamp glinting on his hair, which used to bleach white in summer when he was a child but was a dark golden now. From time to time she would look up from her work and Continued on page 44
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The Good Dress
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let, tier eyes rest on him as he sat over his hooks at the old pigeonhole desk in the corner, his shoulders looking enormous in the faded rughy sweater he was wearing. In the intimate silence of the room a deep peace filled her soul.
And then suddenly Marty had looked up from his work. “By the way, Mother,” he said casually, as‘ though it were not of much importance. “There’s a girl I want you to meet when you come up for graduation.”
Her heart gave a sudden jar, seemed to stop, then raced on again. In spite of his offhand way, she sensed at once that this girl was important to him. Her tone was as casual as his own, however. “A girl, Marty?”
“Name’s Joan Kirby. I’ve been seeing quite a lot of her lately.”
Probably she had looked a bit disturbed, for he was quick to go on reassuringly: “Now don’t go getting
the idea that I’m going to rush into marriage the way Sis did. For one thing, Joan’s people have money. I would want to give her at least some of the things she’s been used to. But she’s the kind who doesn’t mind waiting. Not if she cares about a fellow ...” Reaching for his pipe, he added with an embarrassed, boyish grin that tugged at her heart, “I sure hope you like her, Mother.”
“I’m sure I will, Marty,” Janet answered, smiling quietly, though every nerve was tense with emotion.
Joan —a city girl who might think herself above simple farming folk. A girl who had had fine things all her life. How would she feel toward the dowdy woman who was Marty’s mother?
Joan had to like her. When Marty married, Janet must feel she was gaining a daughter, not losing a son. Surely that was not too much to ask when the time came for a mother to share her son’s love with another woman.
From being an event to which Janet had looked forward with pleasure, graduation day gradually loomed as an ordeal. She was plagued with the problem of getting a new dress for herself—a really good dress that would pass scrutiny before a well-to-do girl’s eyes. Certainly the limited budget of the little truck farm did not provide sufficient extra money.
IT WAS in early spring that she hit upon an idea for earning money for herself. She bought packets of flower seeds and Herb sowed them in flats in the greenhouse. Later she filled hundreds of plant boxes with earth and, when the seedlings were large enough, transplanted them, a dozen to a box.
It was monotonous work. Cosmos, petunias, marigolds, salvia—little hint now of their summer glory in the endless succession of frail stems and tiny, half-curled leaves. Though the atmosphere in the greenhouse was often like that of a humid day in July; though her neck grew stiff and dirt forced its way insidiously between her nails and her fingers, she persevered, finding time for her housework as best she could. Now the plants were sold, the money in lier purse. Nothing must interfere with her spending it as she had planned.
Herb drew up the car before the steps. As she climbed in beside him where he sat behind the wheel, his vest and khaki pants stained with green from the tomatoes he had been picking in the greenhouse, she noticed how peaked he was looking. That meant his indigestion was bothering him. The doctor said he should have his teeth out, hut Herb kept putting it off. Partly because, manlike, he hated going to
the dentist; mostly because he felt he could not afford it.
Sixty dollars would go a long way toward a set of teeth . . .
Again Janet caught herself up firmly, averted her eyes from Herb and looked toward the field where Marty, home for a couple of days vacation, was discing with the tractor. He had taken off his shirt and his back was deeply tanned. He waved his old peanut-straw hat as they drove past. Seeing him like that, you would not think that he had just passed his final university examinations. Marty winning a scholarship and now taking his degree. It was wonderful but rather frightening Sometimes when children got a lot of education, they became ashamed of their parents.
The car rattled along ‘the gravelled road, raising a cloud of grey dust that settled on the grapevine leaves, the chokecherry and elderberry bushes that bordered the ditches. Herb, never much of a talker, finally took his blackened corncob from his mouth. “You’ll be going to see Marion when you’ve done your shopping?”
Janet had always tried never to show favoritism between her two children but she knew deep in her heart that Marty was just a little closer to her, while Herb had always had a softness for Marion, their first-born.
At 17 Marion had announced she was tired of the farm and wanted to go to the city to work. Though they hated to part with her they scraped up enough money to pay for her business course. When Marion got a good job with a brokerage firm, however, and came home on visits looking smarter and prettier than any other girl in the district, they were very proud of her.
Then, one week end when Marion had just turned 20, she arrived home with a boy almost as young as herself, her manner both pleading and defiant.
“I want you to meet Bob Griffin,” she introduced him. Looking tensely from her father to her mother, she dropped the bombshell. “We were married six months ago.”
What hurt most was that Marion would not have told them even then if there had not been a baby on the way. It had been hard enough for Janet to accept, but she knew that for Herb it cut far more deeply.
So now Janet said gently: “Of
course, I’ll be going to see Marion.” Herb left her at the station with his usual admonition. “Look out for traffic! And don’t go getting one of your sick headaches.”
An affectionate smile tugged at Janet’s lips as she stood on the platform listening to the telegraph key ticking away in the station. In all the years Herb had been bringing her to the train —times long before they ftad a car, when perhaps it was the sleigh with Marion and Marty, two mites in red caps and mittens lifting cold cheeks for her good-by kiss—Herb’s send-off had hardly varied.
HEAT came down the canyons of the city streets as she left the railway terminus an hour later. She was thankful to pass through the revolving doors of the big departmental store where she Usually shopped and to feel the chill of the air conditioning. She went at once to the women’s dresses on the third floor. In the lowerpriced section, shoppers were twirling the circular racks around haphazardly, looking for sizes and styles to suit them. The blue polka dot she was wearing had originally come from such a rack. Today it was a different sort of dress she wanted.
In a quiet thick-carpeted end of the store half a dozen frocks were elegantly
displayed, and she paused and looked around her uncertainly.
“Something for you, Madame?”
The woman was so sleek in her black dress, so poised and sure of herself that for a moment Janet.felt flustered.
“I want to get a dress,” she stammered. “A—A good dress.”
“For any special occasion?”
“A garden party. Mÿ son—lie’s graduating from university ...”
“I see,” the woman said, turning on a mechanical little smile. Janet knew she didn’t really see at all—not the hard work, the worries, the apprehensive daydreams. If she had, she would probably have despised them.
The saleswoman selected two or three filmy frocks. “Shall we try these?” she asked. Janet followed her into a dressing room. Her hair slipped untidily down on her neck as she struggled out of the cheap polka dot. Embarrassed, she stood before the woman with her mended cotton vest showing above the faded rayon slip, little drops of perspiration springing out on her lip and forehead.
The saleswoman looked at Janet’s hips gloomily. “No use trying any of the 38’s,” she said resignedly. “You’ll take at least a 40.” '
And Janet, as she held up her arms and let the woman slip a dress over her head, felt that it was somehow disgraceful to take a 40.
Then, even the saleswoman did not matter any more. Softly the folds of the dress fell almost to the floor, hiding all but the toes of her black oxfords. The background of the frock was grey. Scattered over it in a fine black tracery was a design that looked like ostrich plumes. Janet stared at herself in the three mirrors, fascinated. Her skin no longer looked coarse and highly colored, her waist thick, her hips too broad. Involuntarily she held her head higher.
A bright picture flashed through her mind. The green lawns of the university, the old stone cloister that Marty had described to her, well-dressed men and women moving about, and she among them—proud, at ease, conscious that she looked as she had never looked before.
“Shall we try the others?” the saleswoman asked
Janet shook her head quickly. “No. I’ll take this one.”
. She would have liked to ask the saleswoman about a hat and shoes but lacked courage. In the millinery department, however, she found a trim little girl with soft eyes who helped her select a becoming broad-brimmed black hat and suggested grey shoes and gloves.
By noon Janet was sitting in the basement cafeteria of the store eating lunch consisting of a dry ham sandwich, a thick piece of lemon pie and a cup of coffee. Her shopping was completed, her purchases piled around her. .She had exactly 46 cents remaining out of the money she had brought to spend and she had not been so thrilled in years.
Her train did not leave till fivethirty. There was plenty of time to visit Marion. As she walked up the shabby street where Bob and Marion had a flat, she saw Alan’s little express wagon by the front steps. He would be in having his sleep.
Alan reminded her of Marty as a child. He had the same' fair hair and clear blue eyes. But where Marty had been solid and chunky, Alan was thin and frail. No wonder, Janet thought sadly. These hot sidewalks were a poor playground.She wished Marion and Bob could move to a house with a garden, but neither of them was a very good manager and they could not get ahead financially.
Marion came downstairs from the
I upper flat to answer Janet’s ring. Her blond hair needed a permanent and the housedress she wore was faded with washing. It hurt Janet, remembering how proud Marion used to be of her j appearance.
They sat chatting in the small, cluttered living room. Marion asked j about things at home but Janet got the j impression that her daughter was not listering to the answers. Something was troubling Marion deeply, Janet realized as they talked on. She noticed how dark the circles were under the girl’s eyes. She certainly did not look well.
“Marion,” she asked abruptly after a little while. “Are you feeling all right?”
Marion threw her an uncertain glance. Her hands clenched slowly. Her lips began to tremble. Suddenly she buried her face in the cushions of the couch. “I’m going to have another baby,” she sobbed wretchedly. “I—1 haven’t told anyone yet. Not even Bob.”
For a moment Janet sat staring at j her, too overcome with pity and worry I to know what to say. To her, Marion ! and Bob still seemed little more than 1 children, who grew up to responsibility too soon. She knew Bob’s salary was barely adequate for their present needs.
! What could she say to her daughter?
Her mind flashed back to the time when she first knew Marty was coming. Marion had been only a year old. That was the summer when the terrible hail storm had broken most of the greenhouse glass. She could remember crying in the way Marion was crying now, wondering how she and Herb could possibly manage. If she could have had her wish, Marty would never have been born. Marty, who was so much to her!
She got up heavily and went over to her daughter, taking her firmly by the shoulders. “This is no way to go on,” she told her quietly. “When the baby comes, you’ll wonder how you ever got along without it. A sister or brother will be good for Alan. You’ll manage somehow. Your father and I can help out with the hospital and doctor bills.” She talked on reassuringly, feeling Marion’s unhappiness slowly lessening.
It was only as the streetcar whirled her back downtown through the hot streets that she began to think of herj self again. Wasn’t it enough to bring up i two children of your own without having to start on your grandchildren?
Back in the store, she hurried from one green exchange light to another. The dress box, the hat bag, the parcel i holding the grey shoes—each in turn passed back over the counter, was opened and examined. There was a ring of change in the metal tray of the cash register, bills were folded and slipped back into her purse. When she rushed into the station a few minutes before train time, her bad ankle swollen with too much walking, her hat slightly j askew, she carried only two small ; parcels—work shirts for Herb and I socks for Marty.
“You’ve got one of them sick headi aches!” Herb accused her when he met ! her at the station.
Later in the evening, Marty brought i a cup of tea upstairs for her. He sat on the edge of the bed while she drank it. “What’s in the parcels?” he asked idly, seeing them lying unopened on the dresser.
“Work shirts for your dad and socks for you.”
“Women are the limit!” he teased. “Gosh, I could have shopped for them without getting myself all tuckered out this way.”
She remembered again how the grey j dress had draped her thick figure, the softness of the material that she had been afraid to touch with her roughened fingers. She closed her eyes. “My
head’s still aching too much to talk, Marty,” she said, tyrhing her face to the pillow.
SHE HAD never prayed harder for rain than that the graduation daymight be wet. On a wet day her old hat and dress would not be so noticeable. But on the morning of Marty’s graduation, Janet was awakened out of an uneasy sleep by a sunbeam falling across her face.
Graduation was at two o’clock. She and Marty had lunch early and left for town. Herb was not going. He had stubbornly maintained right along that a convocation, or whatever it. was called, was no place for a plain man like him.
Janet had dressed herself as carefully as she could. She had blackened up her oxfords, put on clean underwear, done her hair in neat rolls. Finally she went to the cupboard, and without looking at it, reached in for the old polka dot and slipped it on. The dowdy black straw hat completed her costume.
Several times as they drove along, she looked at Marty, sitting straight and big-shouldered behind the wheel. He was wearing his one good doublebreasted blue suit, but he wore it with an air. Once more, Janet marvelled that she and Herb should have such a son.
“Oh, God, make him not ashamed of me,” she prayed, as they finally turned from the city streets into the shaded parkway that circled the university buildings
Marty took her as far as the entrance to the graduation hall and there he had to leave to join the procession of his classmates. The seat to which she was ushered, far back in the gallery, could not have pleased her better. A streak of sunlight came through an amber window behind her. Here she could see everything and remain unnoticed herself. For the first time that day she forgot her middle-aged dowdiness and settled down to enjoy the proceedings.
She felt her heart lift. To the strains of the organ, the members of the staff of the university were coming down the aisle in their gowns. * Eagerly she watched the long line of young men and women who followed. Almost as soon as he entered the door, she saw Marty. He appeared taller, stronger than the rest. It seemed a long time before he was called to the front—Anderson, Banks, Burton ... At last, his name — Martin Riley Shepherd.
As he strode confidently forward she wanted to say to the people around her: “That’s my son!” When he threw a smile upward to the gallery where he knew she was sitting it seemed her heart would burst with love and pride.
Afterward, when the ceremony was over and the crowd was moving out over the shaded lawns of the campus, Marty came up and took her arm.
“Well, do I look like a man with a degree?” he grinned, as he piloted her across the grass. Girls with armfuls of flowers, boys with their gowns flapping about their legs called to Marty as they went along. She could tell he was popular with his classmates.
Marty installed her in a canvas chair under a chestnut tree. “You wait here and I’ll rustle some food,” he told her. “I’ll get hold of Joan too.”
Janet watched the fashionable crowd moving slowly over lawns, struggling politely around the refreshment tent for the plates of little sandwiches and the paper cups of ice cream. The longer Marty was gone, the more out of place she felt. It was ridiculous, of course. Clothes were not everything and certainly all these people were not well dressed. Yet their talk, their manners seemed so confident. They seemed to
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belong here and she felt as if she did not. She began to wish desperately that she were home with Herb.
Then she saw Marty making his way back through the crowd, a plate in one hand and a cup and saucer in the other. With a great thump of her heart, she realized he was not alone.
The girl who accompanied him was tall and dark-haired. She was as lovely as anyone Janet had seen that day, although too thin, the way most girls were nowadays. As she drew near, Janet noticed that the white dress under her graduation gown was exquisite with embroidery.
“Mother, this is Joan,” Marty introduced them eagerly.
Joan held out her hand. “This must be a proud day for you, Mrs. Shepherd,” she said, and there was such a warmth of friendliness in her eyes and voice that Janet relaxed at once.
“I’m glad to know you, Joan,” she answered, taking Joan’s hand with real pleasure.
“Marty has told me so much about you,” Joan went on, smiling at them both. “I’ve been looking forward to a talk with you. I’m sure there’s all sorts of inside information on Marty that I ought to know!”
She was sincere and unassuming and full of fun, Janet felt as they chatted on. Already she was drawn to her. If Marty married her, it would not be hard to come to love her.
Then a cool, carefully modulated voice interrupted their conversation. “Oh, there you are, Joan, dear,” it said.
The girl turned abruptly. “Oh, hello, Mother,” she answered flatly.
The woman who had come up wore a flowered garden-party frock and a picture hat. On first glance she looked more like Joan’s older sister than her mother. It must have taken her ages to apply that flawless make-up, Janet thought. There was not a hair out of place in her beautiful finger wave.
As Joan introduced them and Janet saw Mrs. Kirby’s eyes sweep over her with unconcealed surprise, her discomfort returned with a rush. This was just the sort of thing she . had looked forward to with dread. While Joan and Marty made conversation with Mrs. Kirby, she nibbled miserably at a tiny cress sandwich. Marty’s eyes were going from her to Joan’s mother and back again. Certainly, he noticed the contrast. What was he thinking? She was afraid to imagine.
“Oh, there’s Professor Eakins and his wife,” Mrs. Kirby exclaimed suddenly. She waved enthusiastically at a distinguished-looking couple. “Joan, we simply must speak to them.” With the briefest of nods to Janet, she trailed off.
Joan hesitated. “It looks as if we won’t have a chance for much talk now, Mrs. Shepherd,” she said ruefully. “But we must see each other again soon. Get Marty to arrange it, won’t you?”
Impulsively she squeezed Janet’s arm before she hurried off to where her mother was beckoning impatiently.
“You liked Joan, didn’t you?” Marty asked afterward, as he was driving Janet to the station. He was staying in the city for the graduation ball that night.
“She seems an awfully nice girl, Marty,” Janet said. She added hesitantly, “But her mother’s very grand, isn’t she?”
Marty let out a brief hoot of laughter. “You said it!” Then he sobered. “Her mother’s a pain in the neck,” he declared flatly. “Joan hasn’t had much of a life in many ways. Her father and mother are separated. All her mother cares about is trying to make an impression on people she thinks are important—that and trying to look years younger than she is. Joan’s spent
most of her life in fashionable hotels and boarding schools. She’s never known what it’s like to have a real home and family.” He looked at Janet almost pleadingly. “But you can see it hasn’t spoiled her one bit, can’t you, Mother?”
Her heart brimming with thankfulness, Janet began to realize that it was not she who had ever been on trial in Marty’s mind.
“Of course Joan’s a fine girl, Marty,” she said humbly. “But weren’t you afraid she might not take to me? I’m not—not a very fashionable body, you know.”
Marty grinned affectionately at her. His next words more than made up for the grey dress—for all the pretty things she had wanted and never felt she could afford. “Joan couldn’t help liking you, Mother. Nobody could.” -fa