While rummaging through odds and ends in my parent's basement last month, I stumbled upon my grandmother's wedding gown. I had seen it several times as a child, but ever since my grandmother's death, it has been buried deep in a trunk, under a pile of old hand-me-down clothes and moth-eaten linens. The gown, originally worn in 1938, is almost 60 years old, and, for the last few years, its existence has been nearly forgotten by my family. In finding it, I felt as if I had made a fantastic discovery.
Materially, the gown is worth nothing. Not one pearl nor lace border is sewn on the dress, since my grandmother, whom I called Nonni, could not afford to buy anything elaborate.
Except for the gown, none of her possessions remain in the house. I know that Nonni had not owned many things, but I distinctly remember small religious statues which she kept on her bureau.
The plastic figures had been broken and glued several times, and it always was a mystery to me why she saved them. She had probably bought them at a church bazaar, and it never occurred to her to throw them away and buy something bigger and grander. Those statues were, I believe, a sign of her faith, which was simple and steadfast.
Reminiscing about Nonni, I looked back at the gown, its shiny white satin yellowed with time. The musty dress, never having been stored properly, is stained and torn in spots. I couldn't help but wonder if there was any way to restore it or to at least preserve what was left.
I brought the gown upstairs and, without much thought, took it into the bathroom. There, in complete privacy, I held it out in front of me, placing the high collar up to my neck. Then I looked at myself in the mirror, judging that the gown would be a perfect fit.
A perfect fit. My grandmother was married by the time she was 22 years old; I am that age now. I can remember studying her wedding picture during my teenage years, wondering if I would ever be as beautiful as she had been.
At last, looking at myself in the mirror with the wedding gown in hand, I could see her warm smile and curly hair in my own reflection.
It's embarrassing to admit that, as a young woman, I had never wished to inherit anything but physical features from Nonni. Born of immigrant parents, she was poor and uneducated. At age 8, she was sent to Italy for four years with her brothers and sister. They returned to America when she was 12; then she grew up in a tenement on ''Federal Hill,'' the infamous Italian section of Providence, R.I. Having spent so much time in Italy, she could no longer remember English.
Once she turned 16, Nonni's father took her out of school and sent her to work in a jewelry factory. Rather than argue over the matter (for times were tight financially) she sacrificed her education for the sake of her family.
English had come back to her and she spoke without an accent, but, over the years, she kept her own special language. I remember that she never used the word ''car,'' but called all vehicles ''machines.'' Italy was always ''It'ly,'' and she pronounced the ''ch'' in Chicago like the ''ch'' in ''cheese.'' Sometimes I was embarrassed when she spoke to my teenage friends.
My eyes rested again upon the gown. I began to refold it, silently lamenting that it could never even be tried on again. It was much too moldy for anyone to wear. And then I thought, why not? A little bit of mold wouldn't hurt me.
I removed my clothes and slipped my arms through the sleeves, pulling the gown over my head. As I pulled the dress down, I found that it would not get past my neck. In fact, it wouldn't budge at all. Though I am petite like Nonni was, she must have had a much smaller frame than I do.
Disappointed, I sighed to myself, knowing that the gown would never fit. I had hoped the dress would somehow serve as a link between Nonni and me - a relic to bridge the gap between the present and the past. Instead, I am finding that the intangible provides more of a connection to my grandmother. That is, memories of her strong faith and family ties.
Finally, I put the gown back into its trunk, where it may stay for another 15 years before someone finds it once more. Who knows? Maybe I will be showing it to my own children by then, and they too will see that the beauty of the dress lies in its very simplicity.
But, of course, they will be too young to see what I have learned just recently: That beauty and strength of character are not found in wealth or education, but within a strong set of beliefs and goodness of heart.