The woman in the white dress is 24. I knew the woman in the white dress, yet I never actually knew her in the white dress.
I knew her in a long black dress and black cape that she made herself and wore to parties. I knew her in a long, green bath robe worn every morning for years until it was full of holes and was replaced by a pink one. I knew her in pale denim jeans with multi-colored toadstools embroidered on the back pockets, and a jacket to match – well, it was the 70s. I knew her in a pale, stripey sweater that she referred to as her ‘Italian sweater’ although it came from the local department store, but had a ‘made in Italy label’ inside.
I knew her arm- and knee-deep in flowers and branches as she snipped away large pieces of hedgerow for floral arrangements. This being particularly embarrassing to the teen I was as cars drove by on the one road that everyone had to take to get anywhere. We lived in a village of less than 4,000 people, so you know they knew who we were. I knew her in an apron cooking and baking and complaining of splashes of food on her shirt. I never understood why she didn’t upgrade to a full apron rather than just the skirt kind.
I knew her constantly engrossed in a book. She had one on the go in almost every room of the house, picking up where she’d left off in each as she moved about the house. I knew her in her element as she knelt sketching flowers or scenes she intended to paint, ignoring my father’s complaints about the state of the house and the paintbrushes in the bathroom. Her philosophy on cleaning – the more often you do it, the more often you have to do it, so you shouldn’t do it too often – a philosophy I never really shared and thus adopted the role of chief tap shiner, and bath scrubber. I knew her sitting in movie theaters watching obscure or foreign language films that my father and sister turned their noses up at, but which she and I loved to see. I knew her in a tie-dyed skirt with bells and tassels at the end of my first year at university. My friend’s mothers wore jeans and white sneakers, and I thought “My mum really doesn’t dress like the average mum.’ Then I thought it again, only this time it had somehow become a good thing. Then for many years, I knew her only in letters and in phone calls.
Then one day I knew her in a hospital bed. A week later, I saw her arrive home, so pleased to be out the hospital. We knew she was ill, but not how ill. I didn’t see her as she came to the end of her days. 5 weeks later, I was out of the country, and got a call saying she had said she was dying and wanted her family with her. I talked to her to say I was coming, but she told me she was sorry and that I wouldn’t make it in time. I begged her to hold on, but she just told me she loved me and that she couldn’t. She was right. I wanted to see her one last time, but my sister persuaded me not to: “It’s not her anymore.” And she was right. So instead I look at the woman in the white dress, and understand why my father was first attracted to her (and feel glad he was persistent despite her turning him down several times when he tried to ask her out on a date – I found a few years ago that they had known each other for 11 years before they got married). I’m really glad I got to know the woman in the white dress, even though I never knew her in the white dress. It’s hard to believe that ten years have passed since she died: Jan 30, 2003.