The Blue Organdy Dress by Carol P. Christ


The blue organdy dress was a present my grandfather bought for me at the end of a summer I spent in San Francisco with my grandparents when I was six-going-on-seven. Was this the first time I crossed my father? Or only the first time I remember? My father had asked his father to buy me a dress for the first day of school. I was taken to the Emporium, a well-known department store in San Francisco. It was there that I spied the blue organdy dress.

Organdy is a thin cotton weave often stiffened with starch that was reserved for party dresses. The dress was palest blue and because organdy is see-through, it came with its own matching slip, also made of blue organdy. The dress had a full skirt and a big sash that tied in a bow at the back. It would have had puff sleeves, and if I remember correctly, eyelet embroidery. It was definitely not suitable for school, nor even for the tree-climbing and running around in the garden I usually engaged in at family gatherings at my other grandmother’s house after church.

My grandfather nodded when I insisted that I must try that dress on. It fit perfectly, and soon after he paid for it.

It had been a special summer. I was the first grandchild and my grandparents doted on me. I had been sent to stay with them for two weeks, but every time my parents called, I begged to be allowed to stay longer. My grandparents and I developed a familiar routine. After my grandfather finished the crossword puzzle and smoked a few cigarettes, he joined my grandmother and me for a white breakfast porridge called Farina. Then we all got dressed, and my grandmother drove my grandfather to the train he took into the city for work.

The early mornings after we dropped him off were the best part of the day. My grandmother liked to stop by the local Catholic church to light a candle in a dark blue glass for Uncle Bobby who was away in the Korean War. I would sit quietly while she prayed the rosary on her faceted lavender rosary beads. I wanted to pray with her, but because she prayed silently, I never got the hang of the “Hail Marys.” I must have known the words to the “Our Father” by then, but the order of the prayers remained a mystery to me. Yet it was in those moments that I learned the Blessed Mother is always with us.

After church, my grandmother and I had our daily adventure. We might go to Lake Merced to watch the ducks. Or to the ocean where we removed our shoes and I my socks and my grandmother her stockings so we could run along the shore in the waves. Sometimes we found sand dollars.

I am not sure why my parents sent me away that summer. An aunt once mentioned that there was a time when my parents had problems. My younger brother was a difficult child. This also would have been the year our family moved from Monrovia to Temple City, because colored people had begun to move into our school district.

I do not know why I insisted that I be allowed to stay with my grandparents for the whole summer. I must have enjoyed being the only child again. I liked playing canasta with my grandmother and listening to the stories told by a neighbor named Jewel. My grandmother had a fish tank with guppies that were continually giving birth. We scooped some of them into a jar for me to take home at the end of the summer, but they all died during the ten hour drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

As soon as we arrived, I would have excitedly modeled the blue organdy dress for my parents. My father was livid. “I asked you to buy her a school dress” was all he said to his father. I suspect that my grandfather and I were given “the silent treatment” for our sins. Nonetheless, I loved that dress.

This is not the exact same dress, but it is similar.

*With thanks to Alice Munro whose stories I had been reading and interviews watching in the days before I wrote this. What I took from her is that life flows on and then there is a moment when you make a small decision and everything changes, far more than you ever realized it could or would.

Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist writer and educator currently living in Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s new book written with Judith Plaskow, is Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. FAR Press recently published A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess. Carol  has been leading educational tours based on the religion and culture of ancient Crete for over twenty years. Carol’s photo by Michael Honegger.

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Categories: Feminism, Feminism and Religion

Tags: , ,

18 replies

  1. Enjoyed reading this, Carol. My granddaughter likes staying with me and her Grandpa too. We have a lot of fun together, although now she’s discovered how to play games on her Kindle she’s less interested in cooking with me.

    Glad you had a good time with your grandparents. I think that’s so important for a child.

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  2. Good morning, Carol. Thank you for your stories. I, too, grew up in Monrovia, my father’s insurance agency was in El Monte. I had to wait til I was 18 to escape, but I have been gone for 50 years and miss Los Angeles for about five minutes in February when it is 80F there and below freezing where ever I am!

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  3. Like you I miss nothing that still exists about the San Gabriel Valley, once it was rural, now it is a freeway hub. My father’s insurance agency was also in El Monte!

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    • Daddy worked for his step-father, Charlie Gallagher, until the mid-50s, then went out on his own, Neil C. Smith Insurance, and later Smith & Carr Insurance. He retired and sold S&C in 1995. His clients were small businesses and their families. There were small machine shops serving aerospace, restaurants, a few car dealerships and repair shops and a few retail stores on Valley Blvd. One of my first fashion tussles with my mom was over my First Communion dress. She wanted a very modest Dotted Swiss number at Ballings Baby Shop on Myrtle Avenue, and I had my eye on an explosion of organza ruffles!

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  4. I remember dresses like the one you describe. Other little girls wore them at birthday parties. Neither my mother nor my grandmother, who bought our clothes, ever bought me one. Their taste tended to dark blue and subdued. How lovely that your grandfather threw practicality to the winds and bought you what I thought of as princess dresses or fairy dresses.

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  5. Thanks for sharing your memories Carol. I can vividly see you in that blue organdy dress, but I can also imagine you quite easily as a tree climber.

    Reading your post, I started thinking about any sort of dress or object of some kind that could symbolize my childhood. What came back immediately was a book case in my grandmother’s apartment, and which she filled with beautiful ceramic objects, mostly replicating plants and animals. It may have turned me into an avid environmentalist as I got older.

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  6. Enjoyed your post, Carol, thanks. When I see people out and about where I live, it’s rare to see women and girls in fancy dresses, etc. Jeans and tights seem to be what women wear so often.

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  7. I love your family stories, Carol. Thank you for sharing them.
    I regret never knowing my grandmother, or grandparents on my father’s side of the family. My mother’s mother died shortly before I was born and I was named for her.

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  8. Oh Carol, another wonderful post giving your dear readers another glimpse into the child that grew into the amazing woman you are!

    Sadly, crossing one’s father and in my case my mother, was simply not tolerated in the house I lived in, so I never rebelled in a healthy way, but endured silent torture and in the process I eventually lost myself.

    However, I too had a grandmother who loved me. She didn’t yell and scream, she told me stories. She never hit me. She did not buy me dresses; instead she sewed my clothes – even my first school prom dress – clothing that I wanted to wear – I remember being so proud that she could create any design I wanted for a dress, a pair of shorts, exquisitely embroidered shirts, – I could go on and on here. And the peace I found in her presence made staying with her a joy. I never wanted to go back home.

    Best of all she lived in the country and my little brother and I became naturalists because of her love of the land, birds, her gardening skills. Although she died a year after my brother’s suicide – when I was twenty four – at least I had memories of being cherished by someone besides my little brother who I adored… Thank you for this post that triggers happy memories.

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  9. Thanks, Carol, for this personal post. It brings two stories to mind for me. The first is about the Friday nights I would spend with my grandmother in a town 20 miles away from my home. My younger sister and I would take a bus that stopped in front of our house in the small village of 500 where we lived and then at several other spots before it got to Grammy’s town. We would go for swimming lessons at the YMCA (to which I had to lead us through this somewhat unfamiliar big town at the age of 9 or 10 — that was scary). But after the lessons my aunt would pick us up and drive us to Grammy’s. Most nights we were greeted by the smell of fresh bread (Yum! yum!) and ate supper while watching the Friday night fights on the TV (a show that my grandmother always enjoyed). That fresh bread smell will always define comfort and safety for me as a result.

    The other story is about my daughter Linnea. As good feminist parents, my spouse and I decided to dress her in unisex clothing, something my spouse’s mother didn’t really appreciate. But at the age of 4 when Linnea grokked that she was a girl, she wanted nothing more than to dress in pink frilly dresses. My mother-in-law swooped in at this point and bought her all sorts of girly clothes, while my spouse and I lamented that this was the “revenge on the feminist parents.” We chuckled as we we said this to each other, because we actually made a decision that how our daughter dressed was less important than her affirmation of being a girl, of which her clothing desires was a reflection.

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  10. Delighted to read your story – brought back many memories of family relationships, important clothes, and Temple City (what a surprise!) – and raised a number of thoughts about how complex “subversion” really is. Thanks!

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  11. Good for you and for your grandfather for standing up to your father. I’m glad you had such wonderful grandparents. My father could be a tyrant, too. He often verbally abused my mother and me. I remember when I was in 6th grade he asked me why I had an inferiority complex and I thought “because of you” but I didn’t dare say it!

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  12. Carol, you are such a great writer. This story took me back to my childhood. There are so many places and pieces that helped us evolve into Goddess beings rather than God-the-Father-followers. This is just a tiny glimpse into how your path was laid and I so enjoyed reading it.

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