After we die, who is left to tell our story? And what is left of who we were?
My maternal grandmother Anna Mary Herr Hess died at the age of 56 when I was not quite three years old; hence, I do not consciously remember her living presence. Almost everything I know about my grandmother has come to me in the form of stories my mother has told me. And in the form of things left behind.
Yesterday I decided to put on some of the things Anna Mary left behind. These are things I bought at my Grandpa Hess’s sale or were given to me by my mother.
The inventory goes like this:
1. The fur muff and stole in the picture above.
2. Two black Mennonite bonnets
3. Several dresses worn during WWI when Anna Mary was a teenager
4. some undershirts and children’s clothing
5. Anna Mary’s black “plain” dress which was “made over” by my other Grandma (Hershey) so that my mother could wear it and feel closer to her absent mother. And a plain brown cotton dress probably worn in the 1930’s. As Grandma Hess sold poultry, vegetables, and baked goods at the Central Market in Lancaster, Penna., she might have worn a dress like this one.
Yesterday I put on some of Anna Mary Herr Hess’s things — the furs she wore in her fancy youth and two of her plain dresses worn after she joined the Mennonite Church. I spent the day and the night trying to touch her through these objects. I thought about little changes in my own path that might have led me either to the furs or to the bonnet and cape dresses. There’s nothing like wearing a dress on the outside to help imagine another life on the inside.
Here’s what I have learned so far in my quest for my childhood self as I write memoir:
- I am the beneficiary of three generations of maternal love energy focused on single daughters.
- Each generation of these mothers suffered deep grief before the age of 30.
- Each one loved beauty and fine clothing, and each one gave up these loves for the sake of Mennonite Church teaching. See the contrasts in the gallery of photos below.
By putting on the dresses and furs my grandmother left behind and my mother preserved, I touched two threads: one is the love of the visible, material, lovely physical world and the other is an equally beautiful world that can only be appreciated as beautiful from the inside. A deliberately simple, outwardly humble, Mennonite world.
When I look in the mirror of my life, I see both threads, the hems of all these garments. They are the warp and woof of my life.
Do you have any clothing heirlooms from ancestors? Are these tangible symbols powerful for you also? Help us count the ways!
I interviewed my mother for this essay and then cut out the interview because it took me too far from the theme of the post which is about the power of material culture, in this case, dress culture. But if you show interest, I will continue the story in the next post. What would you like to know, and what do you already know, about the daughter, grief, beauty connections? Please leave a comment or question below.