The Wedding Dress
by Julia Sneden
My great grandmother, Abigail Pomeroy Burleson, was born in 1833. I was born in 1936, so there are nearly a hundred years between Abigail and me.
I never knew her in person (she died in 1925, at the age of 92), but I grew up in a household that included two of her daughters and one of her sons, all of whom adored her and told many stories about her, so Great Grandmother was a very real presence to me.
I know, for instance, that she was something of a rebel. Her mother was a devout woman who went into a tailspin when Abby stubbornly refused to join the church at the proper age for profession of faith. Apparently, the household was in an uproar until her father stepped into the debate, saying quietly: “Oh, Martha, she’s a good girl. Leave the child alone.”
I know, too, that she was a woman of great good humor. When someone once said to her: “How do you manage? You never seem hurried or flustered!” Great Grandmother replied with a laugh: “Oh, I don’t have time to hurry.”
Abigail grew up to marry, in 1856, a go-getting young lawyer named Solomon Burleson. Her wedding certificate lists her as “Miss Abby Pomeroy of Franklin in the state of Vermont.” Her wedding dress was a hoop-skirted ivory silk, handmade either by her or one of her town’s seamstresses. Unlike modern wedding dresses that go to the dry cleaners after one wearing, for packing away until a daughter or grandchild might want to wear it, Abby’s dress became the dress she wore whenever she needed something dressier than her everyday things.
A year after the wedding, Solomon and Abby packed up and left Vermont, starting west to what was then the frontier, where Solomon intended to open a law practice. They began their journey by taking a steamer across Lake Erie, and proceeded by various means until at last they took a boat across Lake Pepin in what is now Wisconsin. Late one evening, they docked at a small town, and checked into the only hotel.
That night, there was a wild storm which turned into an unexpected blizzard, and a day or two later when they ventured outside, they found that the boat that held all their worldly goods had sunk at the dock, and the lake had frozen solid above it.
Family legends disagree on how long the boat remained at the bottom of the lake. Some say a few days, some say two months and some are certain it wasn’t raised up until ice-out the following May.
In the meantime, Solomon and Abby with their infant son took a room above the general store. Solomon, ever inventive, created a table by balancing a board atop a crate. He and Abby sat on opposite ends, and if she held the baby on her hip, her weight was almost enough to keep the board in trim. Of course there was a slight problem the first time she jumped up to get something she had forgotten to put on the “table,” and Solomon wound up on the floor with their supper in his lap.
Eventually, the boat was raised, and their belongings delivered to them. The china was just fine, but Solomon’s law books had to be carefully dried out, and all the linens, including Abby’s beautiful wedding dress, were badly water-marked.
Clever Abby simply dyed her dress black, and proceeded to wear it for the rest of her life. She was handy with her needle, so when fashions changed, she remade it to suit the mode, from hoop to bustle to whatever the current style commanded. Despite bearing nine children, she remained tall and slender and able to fit into the dress.
Her saving ways were a matter of necessity, not whim, for Solomon had undergone a conversion during their stay above the store. An Episcopal bishop had come through town, and convinced him that his real calling was to be a missionary priest. In short order, Solomon and Abby moved back to New York, where he attended General Seminary and she taught school to support him.
It was an ironic twist for the youngster who had refused to join her family’s “hellfire and damnation” church (at least that’s what my grandmother called it), but Abby never wavered, and accompanied her clergyman husband as he moved from church to church throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin. His last posting was on the Oneida reservation in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where Abby, by now in her sixties, again taught school. The name the Indian families gave her translated as: “She Who Is Good To The Poor.”
Solomon died in 1897, at which point Abby’s wedding dress became her widows’ weeds.
In 1923, when she turned 90, she was living with her daughter in San Jose, California. Her daughters had a photographic portrait made of her. It hangs in my hallway today. The dress is still a somber black, with a lacy jabot at the neck, and a lace shrug over her shoulders.
After her death, her daughters carefully folded away the dress and put it in a trunk that sat in the basement of our multi-generational household for many years. From time to time, Grandabbie would take out the dress and hang it up to air, and would tell me its history. Each time, she would smooth it gently with her hands and then press her hand to her nostrils. Perhaps she was inhaling the trace of her mother’s scent; perhaps she was simply remembering the feel of that slender body.
Eventually the trunk went to my mother, who stored it in her un-air-conditioned attic in North Carolina. When she moved to her retirement community, the trunk was delivered to me. I glanced into it, but didn’t really explore it until after my mother passed away, three years ago.
There was my own grandmother’s ornate Edwardian wedding dress, all ruffles and laces, no longer a glistening white, but more café au lait in color. There was my mother’s academic gown and mortar board, crumpled and rusty-looking, along with a couple of discolored family baptismal gowns and assorted linens.
And at the bottom, there was my great grandmother’s wedding dress. The black dye had turned a muddy brown. The tiny stitches of the hand-sewn seams, however, were neat and straight as ever. As I lifted it up, I thought about the hours of patient stitching that Abby had put into that dress as she made and remade it.
And then, to my horror, the fabric simply came apart. The seams held, but the silk had rotted, either from age or the damp heat of the South, or both.
I burned the dress, as one burns a worn-out flag, with honor, although I felt a little foolish about that. After, all, a woman as eminently practical and efficient as my great grandmother would surely have laughed at such a gesture from a descendant she never knew. But if she didn’t know me, I knew her. Thanks to my extended and articulate family, my childhood was filled with tales of her wisdom and great good humor.
It is a lucky youngster whose family hands down its memories and stories. They are far more important than position or wealth. Mine was just such a rich childhood, and I have never stopped being thankful for it.
Thornton Wilder once wrote: “All that we can know about those we have loved and lost is that they would wish us to remember them with a more intensified realization of their reality. What is essential does not die, but clarifies. The highest tribute to the dead is not grief, but gratitude.”