Sitting down on knees creaky as the lid of her satin-lined trunk, an old, old woman holds, in a last calm moment, her mother’s lavish bridal dress and long kid-leather gloves. There are rows of hand-sewn pearls on the dress and more pearls acting as buttons along the gloves - pearls, she thinks, not unlike those I will see at the gates, perhaps, tomorrow.
Fabled heavenly gates. The woman pushes through the other things in the trunk, this coffin-sized haven for bibs and baubles, playbills and dance cards - here’s a beaded purse her mother made to carry those cards. To think the century has turned twice since then. One would no longer know what a dance card was. And here are selvages from the gowns her mother wore, gowns, not dresses, and here is the stole she wrapped her shoulders in.
Dancing in gowns. The old woman imagines the translucent gown she will be wearing as she dances toward the gates, tomorrow, perhaps. It is a gossamer of cobwebs over an autumn lawn, the gauzy stuff of a Shakespeare line, the fine tatting of faded Flanders lace. Or perhaps she will be wearing nothing, her soul naked as the old body they opened last week and closed a moment later in white defeat. Maybe the angels will be the ones wearing the gowns.
The old woman drapes her mother’s stole over her head, her spotty hands stiff and shaky as she tries to pull it down around her neck. In a second it feels too warm, but she ties it around her sternum and lets her mother embrace her heart. “Vergheenee,” she hears her mother’s accent, “Vergheenee, come in now, from play. It is time for the bath.”
There is always the bath before the story. “Splish-splash, how are you doing,” her mother sings, busying herself at the sink and pinning her hair in circles while four-year-old Virginie sits in the tub up to her chest in water and steam and rubs herself with bubbles.
“I need my little soaps!” the girl cries.
“Oh, did we forget your soldiers?”
And her mother gathers up a dozen little soaps in little boxes or paper wrappings from the bathroom cupboard and lines them up on the long edge of the tub. Remnants of a dozen hotels in a dozen states her parents had traveled to by train, the little souvenirs now march along the marble, with Lemon Verbena the leader and little orange Life Buoy at the end. Some of the “soldiers” have suffered water damage from Virginie’s wet hands as she moves them around, staunch soaps stuck in their coats, but no matter, they all win in the end, defeating the bath comb and the sponge by sending them into the bubbles below.
Now her mother’s hands are wrapping her in a towel and drying her off with tickles. “Dry, dry,” she sings, and pulls a clean nightgown from the drawer. Sometimes the story involves the soldiers, and Lemon Verbena turns into a girl who is courageous and can lead her troops through any danger before they all lay down to sleep.
I’d forgotten about Lemon Verbena, murmurs the old woman to the creaky trunk. Perhaps she will be there tomorrow, to help me through the gates. Once I get through the gates, mother will be there, to put them all back. To drain the tub, to put the soaps away.
Getting through the gates. That’s the thing. The old woman picks up one of the long gloves again and rubs each pearl along the arm as if they are beads along a rosary. She decides the key is the pearls. If she can touch just one pearl on the gates, she’ll be allowed to go through.
“There you are, up in the attic again!”
Some people have come up the steps. Perhaps they belong to her. She cannot remember if she has children or not. If she does, they probably do not play with the soaps along the edge of the tub. She would remember a thing like that.
“C’mon, gran, let’s go back downstairs.”
She waves them away. Don’t they know she is gathering up her courage to touch the gates tomorrow? She clutches at her mother’s wedding dress, and she holds and holds and holds. Such a gift, this holding, and here she thought she had nothing left to lose.