‘Diana’s Dresses’ by Julia MacDonnell, a Short Story

The following story is by Julia MacDonnell, whose first novel “A Year of Favor” was published by William Morrow in 1994. Her writing has appeared in the Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, North Dakota Quarterly, American Literary Review, and elsewhere. She was born in Maine and grew up in Massachusetts, where she attended Stonehill College. She holds a master’s degree in creative writing from Temple University and a master’s in journalism from Columbia University. Julia is a professor at Rowan University in New Jersey. This story, originally published in the Larcom Review on the North Shore in 2000, is from a short story collection called “Plight of the Piping Plover” that she is marketing in book circles. The story is set in the American Textile History Museum during its notable “Diana’s Dresses” exhibition many years ago. The author attended with her sisters, but the fictional story line goes in another direction. The story is reprinted here for local interest with permission of the author.– PM


“Diana’s Dresses” by Julia MacDonnell

Took Mom to see Diana’s dresses because I figured it might cheer her up. Got caught in traffic just north of Boston where the interstates twine and tangle like veins inside a wrist.

“Guess money can’t buy everything,” Mom says, lighting a True Blue from the lighter in the dashboard. “So young, so rich, and those two young boys to raise.” She frowns, exhaling a great plume of smoke. “Who’d a thunk it?”

“Crack your window,” I say.

“Hmmmph,” she answers, but presses a button and the window slides down half an inch. “Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”

“She wasn’t wearing a seat belt, Mom. She was the mother of young children, no matter how rich she was, and she didn’t buckle up.”

“Her heart was ripped loose in her chest,” Mom says, and I feel her withering glance, one she has perfected during the forty-something years of our relationship. “A seat belt wouldn’t have saved her.”

Now she is fumbling with the ashtray, which is stuffed with gas and toll receipts, the gate card for my parking lot at work, a spare ten dollar bill I keep hidden for emergencies.

“Where do you want me to put this stuff?”

I point to the glove compartment in front of her.

“If she’d been wearing a seat belt, her heart probably wouldn’t have been ripped loose.”

She ignores me.

When Mom opens the glove compartment, my cell phone falls to the floor. Bending to retrieve it, she groans in mock agony. Then, squeezing her butt between her lips, she uses both hands to shove my stuff inside.

“Why don’t you throw some of this junk away?”

Her question is a tiny laceration, a signal that we’ve begun yet another round in our endless argument about what matters and what doesn’t.

“I always keep my receipts. Track my mileage costs. Make sure the gas and credit card companies aren’t  cheating me.”

She makes a throaty sound, exhales in my direction. I’m furious about her smoking, but bite my tongue.

“My only vice,” she declares, snapping shut the glove compartment, giving me the creeps with her ability to see inside my skull.

Again I bite my tongue, this time with greater effort.  I could, and long to, list a few more: skipping breakfast, refusing to take dietary supplements, even calcium for her brittle bones, missing her P.T. appointments, drinking too much sherry, reading supermarket tabloids, watching trash TV.

“They say Dodi had just given her a half million dollar ring. A sapphire, I think. And it was lost in the wreckage.”

“Wasn’t it a diamond?” I ask, remembering something from ‘20/20.’ “Worth about a hundred grand?”

“Whatever. I wouldn’t turn it down.”

Traffic inches forward and I put on my blinker, easing right toward our exit ramp.

Diane’s dresses are on tour, a show called ‘Dresses for Humanity,” which I think is grandiose, but my mother, a Diana nut long before the princess died, believes is a fitting tribute.

“You could look just like her,” she’s said to me a million times–as if I even wanted to. “All you’d have to do is style and highlight your hair.”

“Lose thirty pounds and grow six inches,” I’d reply, humiliated by her delusions, hoping nobody was around to hear.

The exhibit it has been moving from one city to another, and I’d been tracking it, hoping it would somewhere where I could drive her. We do better getting out, not visiting at her place or mine. My house is misery because Mom doesn’t like my kids, at least not as much as I think she should. She doesn’t want to play Parcheesi with them or listen to them practicing their instruments — violin, piano, clarinet. “Been there, done that,” she tells me. And I’ve come to despite the small apartment — up a flight of stairs and at the end of a dim corridor — where she’s lived since Dad divorced her. It’s hazardous and too expensive, but she won’t listen. “It’s my home,” she says. “You can’t afford it,” I answer, which is all too true. Her Social Security check doesn’t begin to meet her basic expenses. She’s forced monthly to dip into the paltry sum she agreed to in her settlement. I figure she’ll be broke in less than three years. “MYOB,” she tells me every time I try to bring this up.

Diana’s dresses are being exhibited in a museum created to honor America’s textile history. I think I’m lost a couple of times before I find it in the middle of some huge old brick buildings, former mills, in the heart of Lowell. I pull up in front, let Mom out and go to park. She waits for me on a bench outside, is grinding out another cigarette when I return.

“You know I could’ve made it from the parking lot to here,” she calls out as I sprint toward her.

“Yeah, you could have, Mom, but the museum closes at three.” It’s about eleven a.m. now.

“You’re picking on a sick old lady,” she tells me without rancor. And I long to answer, but will not, that her ailments, except for her arthritis, are mostly her own fault.

I pay cash, ten bucks apiece, for us to go inside.

“But it’s for a good cause, right?” Mom asks. “Land mines. Kids with AIDS. Diana’s charities.”

I nod. The truth is, I can’t believe I’m here; that I’m actually shelling out hard-earned cash to look at a dead princess’s clothes. I won’t tell any of my friends.

“I hope the John Travolta’s here,” Mom says as we join a line of several dozen others, mostly women. “I’m dying to see the John Travolta.”

Mom means the long velvet number Diana wore when she danced with the movie star at a White House dinner. She owns a Diana doll dressed in a replica of that gown.

“It’s not a John Travolta. Some designer, Victor something, made it.”

“Yes, Edelstein, in navy blue silk velvet. It’s a beauty.”

“Well, it’s here. I already told you.”

Since her stroke, a small one, Mom has used a cane to help her keep her balance. She’s refused to use a walker and vows she never will. If she gets that bad, she tells me and my sisters, “Call Kervorkian.” Once, in the rehab center, when she was crazed with pain and anger, furious that her left leg wouldn’t work the way it used to, she made me promise I would. It was a pinkie swear. We linked baby fingers, and I vowed to call Kervorkian the minute she needed help to poop or pee; the minute she couldn’t get around on her own. I promised she could count on me. She cheered up after that.

The cane is metal, with four rubber-tipped prongs on the bottom. Sometimes I think the prongs are roots, what’s holding her on earth. Mom holds the cane in her right hand, so I stand on her left. Whenever I’m this close to her, I can hear her exhalations. COPD. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Several times a month she needs oxygen. The tank is set up in her living room where she can rest, watch TV.

There are benches in this waiting area, but my mother will not sit on them. Now that we’re in public, she’ll act as if she owns the world, her future. which is doubtful. Our last outing, last week, was to North Shore Radiologic where my mother had an MRI scan of her brain.

Because the scanner, a stainless steel cylinder, was uncomfortable and the procedure a long one, they let me stay with her; told her to choose music from a rack of CDs. She chose Sinatra, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers,but even 0l’ Blue Eyes’ seductive voice–“She’s never hungry for dinner at eight; she loves the theater but always comes late”—failed to soothe her. Mom was shaking so much when they tried to slide her into that contraption, they had to stop and give her a Xanax, then wait for it to kick in. Even afterward, Sinatra’s singing –“I’ve got a crush on you,

sweetie pie” — couldn’t conceal the clanging and groaning of the machine as it penetrated Mom’s skull, making computerized images of her brain. I sat in a folding chair at the end of the table, holding her feet in my hands. “Don’t let go for anything,” she called to me just before her

torso disappeared. I didn’t. I sat holding Mom’s feet the whole time, murmuring, though she probably couldn’t hear me, that it was almost over, she could do it, sure she could. Sinatra sang, the scanner clanged, and Mom quivered softly, terrified. “I’d rather die than go through that again,” she said when it was over.

Later, while Mom was getting dressed, the doctor offered me a guided tour of her brain. It was there before us on a screen, multiple views in swirling greens and blues and yellows, her right and left cerebral hemispheres, cerebellum, brain stem, sensory cortex, motor cortex.

Mom’s mind, a distant universe. I felt like a high-tech peeping Tom as he pointed out dark places among the colors. Areas of atrophy, he said. Irreparable damage, done by a series of transient ischemic attacks, small strokes. Not just the one we knew about, but others, perhaps occurring in a cluster. Mom’s brain, he said, resembled that of an eighty-five-year old, though she was not yet seventy.

“Why are you telling me?” I asked, feeling as if I’d just been rabbit punched.

“Because you need to know,” he said. “Somebody must know. If she doesn’t change her lifestyle … Well, let’s just say, we could be waiting for the big one.”

“The big one?”

“Major stroke.”

Her lifestyle, that’s rich, I wanted to scream. Instead I endured a violent bout of agita. Her lifestyle. Sitting home, smoking True Blues, drinking Bartels & James from a juice glass, watching Montel and Jerry Springer.

“You shouldn’t light another cigarette,” the doctor told my mother when at last she reappeared. “With a single cigarette you risk triggering a, a … a … ” He seemed to struggle for the proper word. Major stroke, I was about to prompt when he waffled. “A cardiovascular event. A major cardiovascular event.”

“Who, me?” Mom answered. She looked him right in the eye and gave him a dazzling smile. “I don’t smoke.”

When our turn finally comes to enter the gallery, Mom gasps, but not from her COPD. The room’s so dark we can’t tell where the walls are. Facing us is a larger than life-sized royal portrait of Diana. Just beyond it is a huge picture of her in a red suit hugging a sick African baby, and beyond that, looming out of the darkness, like obelisks on lunar plain, are the glass cases that contain, draped upon headless mannequins, Diana’s splendid frocks and gowns. Light cascades from hidden fixtures above each one, glistening on silks, velvets, satins and brocades; shimmering on metallic threads and beads and sequins.

It takes a moment to orient ourselves. Then we focus on the first, a long burgundy velvet dress with a matching tailcoat embroidered with gold thread and pearls. A sign warns us not to touch the glass. Another says the dress was worn to the premier of Steel Magnolias in 1990 and again on an official visit to Korea in 1992. The dress is exquisite, breathtaking, finer than anything any woman in generations of my family has ever hoped to own. And the mannequin, of course, is shaped precisely like Diana; no adjustments to the dresses have been made. Against my will, I feel a deep and painful twinge of envy. For the body of Diana, even headless, is voluptuous, perfectly proportioned.

We move on to subdued gown in ivory silk crepe, by Catherine Walker, which Diana wore to a state banquet for the king and queen of Malaysia in 1993. Its simplicity only highlights the luxurious curves of Diana’s body.

“Admit it, she was built,” says Mom, so loud several other women turn around. “I mean without implants, or any other surgical procedures. She was a knockout.”

I nod agreement but feel the stirrings of some ancient hatred. I was, after all, the great-great-granddaughter of potato farmers exiled during The Hunger. I had trouble filling an A cup.

“Of course, she was an aristocrat. So it’s in the blood, that beauty.” Mom nods to herself, as if she’s just made an official pronouncement. Then she hobbles off toward the next dress, listing slightly toward the right.

Displayed are maybe twenty of Diana’s castoffs, all sold for charity at the Christie’s auction two months before she died. A copy of a letter, handwritten by Diana and enlarged umpteen times, credits William, the future king, with the idea of the auction. Mixed with the dresses are copies of mementos, like the letter, and full color photographs of Diana doing her charity work — holding hands with AIDS patients, hugging handicapped children, walking through a minefield in Angola. Like works of art, the dresses have titles and cards to describe them. Mounted next to many are gigantic news photos of the princess wearing them at public functions — state dinners, openings, fund-raisers. The photos are black and white, blurred like fading memories.

Several museum guards and a young Lowell cop — gun, badge and all–keep watch, circulating, reminders that the dresses are worth millions, may even have historical significance.

Groups of women hover by the glass cases, linking arms. Most are well dressed in suits and pumps; they’re manicured and coiffured. Mom and I are not among them. Jeans, a sweatshirt and running shoes were the best that I could manage. In the museum’s reverential light, next to an off-the-shoulder number slit up to there, and aglow with sparkly beads, I notice a jam stain — Welch’s grape — on the front of my sweatshirt.

It looks exactly like Australia on my son’s Montessori puzzle of the world. Must’ve happened when I was making the kids’ sandwiches. I twist my fanny pack around to cover it.

As for Mom, she’s wearing what has become her uniform: polyester pull-on pants (Wash and wear!), a matching print overblouse (Hides a multitude of sins!) and her Hush Puppy walkers in taupe (They’re soooo comfy, and they go with everything!) Even her hair is drip dry, or at least towel dry, the kind of short frizzy perm that went out of fashion twenty years ago.

“Clothes horses,” I sniff, nodding to the group in front of us, three anorexic women in Chanel type suits, and the kind of shoulder bag Diana favored. “Corporate wives with money and time to burn.”

“Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it,” says Mom. “Anyway, they’re wearing copies, not the real thing.”

“Since when did you become an expert in high fashion?”

“One of the many interests I’ve developed in my dotage,” she answers.

“Watching the home shopping channels?”

“Nah,” she says. “They don’t sell haute couture.”

She pronounces haute as hot.  I don’t bother to correct her.

We try to go through the exhibit sedately, like the well-heeled  matrons who surround us. But we’re bedazzled, hungry to see everything but unable to absorb it. We lurch among “Midi-Length Evening Dress” in white silk chiffon with pearlized sequins; “Long Dinner Dress” in dark green silk velvet; “Long Dress for Scottish Dancing,” which has a fitted bodice of black velvet over a voluminous plaid silk skirt.

“Now we’re talking turkey,” says my fashion expert mother when looking at another dress by Walker which, the card tells us, was worn by Diana on her India Tour in 1992. “Now this is truly regal. Jesus.”

The billowing skirt is made of fine pink silk, but the bodice and short fitted jacket are embroidered with white and green sequins shaped like flowers, glass beads, and gold braid. They card says a team of needle women work full-time for a month to complete it.

Among the gowns, like that one, worn for public occasions, are several ‘worn for private functions only’: a nautical style evening dress with one sleeve; a sarong style gown encrusted with pearls and sequins.

“What kind of private function do you figure?” I ask Mom. I’m fantasizing cocktails with the queen; dinner at the palace with a few members of the aristocracy, the ladies in waiting.

“Don’t need clothes like this for any private functions I know of,” Mom says. “They’d really cramp my style.”

I lose Mom for a few minutes, and lose myself in the forest of regal garments. I pause at a long-sleeved burgundy gown with a gargantuan bow upon the derriere, worn to the Back to the Future premier in 1985. I’m wondering how Diana could have concentrated on Michael J. Fox while sitting on this big bow when I sense a commotion, see Mom up ahead leaning against a glass case, one palm pressed flat against it. Her right arm appears to have gone limp, and her cane is tilted sideways, the roots pulled from the earth. I rush toward her. A cardiovascular event, maybe the big one, I’m thinking. The cop reaches her first.

“Do you need help? A wheelchair?” He is touching Mom’s elbow, helping her to right herself. I see that she’s been looking at the John Travolta, the elegant silk velvet like the one on the Diana doll she owns.

“I’m fine, fine,” she says, pulling herself up to her full height, five feet even, though she swears that she’s been shrinking. She grasps her cane with both hands, reattaching the roots. Her cheeks are wet with tears. “Did you know,” she asks the cop, “did you know she was butt naked in the morgue in France? Dodi’s dad, el Fayed, that crook, took off with all her clothes, and they had nothing to put on her to send her body home. Did you know?”

“We have a wheelchair if you need it,” says the cop. “Otherwise, don’t touch the glass.”

Mom gives him her Look, that of despot, a potentate, the one with which she makes her daughters quake. The cop shrugs and walks away.

“You scared the crap out of me.” I try whispering, but it comes out more like a hiss.

“They had to borrow a dress from the wife of the president of France,” she says, wiping her cheeks with one hand. “A plain black sheathe, two sizes too small. They couldn’t even zipper it.”

“I thought you were having a stroke.” I’m hissing even louder, but she looks away, waves her hand at me, the mimed version of MYOB.

We stay for a few minutes in front of the John Travolta. We look at the gown and then at the photographs of the radiant Diana and Travolta dancing, the Reagans and Prince Charles in the back ground smiling. Again I feel a stab of jealousy–over Diana’s beauty, her great body, her wealth and celebrity; her glamorous life. But as I feel this, I also think, Hey, wait, I’m alive, she isn’t. Even with my meager breasts, my messy kitchen, and my mortgage; my noisy kids and depressed mother, the jam stain on my sweatshirt. I’m alive, she isn’t. I’m seized by an insane urge to shout and whoop when Mom interrupts.

“She had the right idea, dying young and beautiful.”

“Oh, Mom.” I grab her shoulder, shake her. “Diana didn’t want to die. A fatal crash wasn’t in her five-year plan.”

“Maybe not,” Mom murmurs, but she doesn’t sound convinced.

After this, she’s had enough. She turns down my offer of cappuccino and biscotti in the museum’s coffee bar. She wants to get home for one of her shows. I walk her to the bench outside, tell her to wait while I get the car, but she pulls me down beside her. Sitting close,

I hear a slight, phlegmy rattle.

“After I go,” she says, “you kids can go through my closets and drawers and gather up my finest things. Drape them on some headless mannequins and tell the story of my life.”

 I look at her.

“Black polyester pull-on pants and matching jungle print big top worn to Senior’s Bingo at Our Lady Queen of Peace, 1999.”

“Yeah, okay,” I answer, catching on. “Navy mail order pull-ons with matching cardigan over nautical print T-shirt. Worn in August, to North Shore Radiologic, for an MRI scan of the brain.”

“And again, on a shopping trip to Wal-Mart.”

“What were you buying, Mom? On the shopping trip. We should say. Maybe have a photograph. Enlarged.”

“Denture cleaner. Depends.”

“Not yet. Not either one.”

“Won’t be long now,” she answers. Yet she’s smiling, and she seems, for this one small moment, to have misplaced her anger, her ill health, her disappointments.

“Don’t charge admission, though,” she says. “Let everybody in for free.”

I almost choke on laughter. Who, I wonder, does she think will come? I envision the hordes jostling for admission to Diana’s Dresses but hardly anyone for Mom: me and my sisters; our husbands and kids, a neighbor or two, maybe Daddy if he’s not too busy.

“Make it a freebie,” Mom repeats, riffling through her waistpack for a smoke. “Promise you’ll let everyone in for free.”

“Sure, Mom, no problem,” I say, going along with her fantasy that faceless throngs, maybe an SRO crowd, would be vying for the chance to see her stuff. I get up, stifling exasperation as she takes out yet another cigarette. “If it’s your last wish, we’ll be happy to honor it.”

Then I take off, heading for the car, and I hear or think I hear the click and hiss of her Bic and smell her smoky exhalation.

(c) 2012 Julia MacDonnell, Reprinted with permission of the author

5 Responses to ‘Diana’s Dresses’ by Julia MacDonnell, a Short Story

  1. Elaine says:

    So glad to read this, Julia! It’s quite a touching piece and reminds me of the work you shared with us in ‘Writing the Novel’.