From the age of five, when she attempted her first burlap weave in art class, she was enamoured of stitches. But although the assignment had been to stitch a simple outline of a dog wearing a bowtie, little Gilda decided that her dog needed embellishment. She crafted, with a bit of wool, patience and plenty of imagination, a burlap tapestry featuring a poodle in full show cut, the self-invented knots of white wool standing round and proud off the canvas. Her finished work revealed a spectacular, if anatomically correct, dog.
Though her art teacher was impressed on one level, she was equally appalled on another. Gilda was summarily dragged by her ear to the office of Mr. Dean and made to present her masterpiece for his perusal. In 1970, elementary school Principals were notably absent of a sense of humour, and Gilda’s tapestry was seized.
On the heels of her obligatory dose of corporal punishment under the somewhat enthusiastic hands of Mr. Dean, Gilda was sent dry-eyed back to her classroom, and her poodle tapestry was destroyed for the safe sanitation of her classmates’ impressionable minds. From this experience, Gilda learned precisely two lessons: She should never again replicate a dog’s undercarriage, and to steer clear of authority figures.
Yet, Gilda’s love for stitches lived on. Aided by library tomes, encyclopaedias and various ladies’ journals and craft magazines, little Gilda set to work mastering her craft. She learned to candlewick and cross-stitch, progressing to finer and finer fabric weaves. Her mother was pleased by the incessant output of samplers and arm caps and doilies, which made shopping for various holidays a breeze. There was never another store-bought gift given outside Gilda’s home, since the fresh flow of needlework was so abundant.
Over time, she mastered crewelwork and lace tatting, graduating to beadwork of increasing complexity. By the time she reached her early teens, she entered the employ of seamstress Doris Beech on weekends. Behind the cloudy window of Beech Bridal, Doris’ square, white storefront, Gilda could be found each weekend, rotating stock to protect the satins from the merciless rays of the Kansas sun. She would lovingly finger the thickly lined silks and tut-tut over the “summer satins,” the bridal term for “cheap polyester” that was preferred by most Midwestern brides.
Gilda assisted her rotund employer in the fitting rooms, holding pincushions and measuring tapes and repeatedly fetching the single pair of greyed size-8 dyeable slingbacks that serviced each and every bride, regardless of foot size.
Over time and due in large part to Doris’ increasing troubles with diabetic feet, Gilda found herself elevated first from shop assistant to head seamstress, and then shop manager by the time she reached twenty. There was no alteration too complex, no beadwork too difficult. Her life, it seemed, stretched out ahead of her like the very plains she resided on, sameness upon sameness, both simple and beautiful, sunbleached and eventually fading to the blue horizon.
Until the day he walked in.
She heard the jingle of the shop door followed by an immediate burst of girlish laughter as the couple tumbled into the faded pink interior of Beech Bridal. She smiled around the pins in her lips and quickly patted her hair, a thick sweep of straight ginger woven into a heavy rope from her nape to her waist, and emerged from the workroom.
Gilda stopped dead in her tracks when she saw him. He was just swinging his hand around to deliver a playful smack onto the seat of his fiance’s tight Levis when he caught sight of her. His hand never made it to his girlfriend’s backside, but in that instant, that microsecond before he recovered, memories of a fair and a bottle and a night flashed between them, the lighted Midway silhouetting bare shoulders and irresponsible laughter ringing into the air… a car and a kiss. A backseat and tears and a girl stomping off down a black gravel road, many, many miles from her home.
Gilda remembered that walk. She remembered it all, and though her world was careening sharply to the left in that instant, she pasted on her brightest smile and looked into the wide, brown eyes of his fiance. This girl had no idea who and what he was, this man she was set to marry. Gilda knew. She knew. She knew.
“How can I help you?” Gilda asked, and within minutes she and the bride-to-be were engrossed in fabrics and dates and plans. Busy though she was, Gilda stole a look at him from behind the rack of gowns. He was fully recovered now, his eyes hard, cocky even. There was laughter there, and something of a dare. As he held her eyes, his grin widened and Gilda bristled. Yes. There was the wolf she knew, alive and well after all this time.
She entered the dressing room and pulled the curtains closed with a decisive snap and turned to assist his bride-to-be, who was just slipping out of her jeans. Gilda bit back her bile as she noted, with no little irritation, that the brown-eyed fiance was also stunningly beautiful. She floated the size-4 gown over her lean shoulders and the girl began giggling uncontrollably over the lack of bosom space.
Gilda smiled and caught her reflection over the top of the brown-eyed girl, who stood like a dolly on a 4-inch stool before her. Gilda’s shoulders were wide and strong, her figure plain and straight. Apart from her rich, red hair, there was not much to distinguish her. In a room, she would be easy to miss. Invisible but for her height, which, by all accounts, was considered over-tall for a woman.
And here, on a step stool, stood this delicious little creature with honey curls and soft eyes, bosoms too large for her tiny frame, and the smallest feet known to womankind. (The size-8’s were never going to work with this one, she decided.) The girl was not, perhaps, the brightest bulb in the box, Gilda decided. But with looks like that, well, there were not too many men who would be bothered by it.
Plain yet clever Gilda twisted her lips in disgust, deciding then and there that these two deserved each other, she being as vacuous as he was amoral.
Once the Happy Couple put down their deposit and left the shop, a shaky Gilda retired to the workroom in back, where the most amazing thing happened. Tears formed behind her eyes, big, wet, salty tears. Gilda was not one for self-pity. Still, she wept for her abused pride and lost innocence, for the foolishness of her solitary moment of madness and for its bitter consequences. The tears splashed down her cheeks, her neck, down her shirt front.
Gilda snatched up what was closest, a scrap of white summer satin, and scrubbed angrily at her eyes. She dropped the scrap onto her table and set to work on the bodice, neatly unpicking seams with surgical precision throughout the remainder of the afternoon. Work calmed her frayed nerves, and so she pressed on, her eyes hot and dry in the wake of her tears.
When the five-o’clock whistle sounded, Gilda rose from her bench and stretched, turning to switch off her work lamp. It was then that she caught sight of the discarded scrap of tear-stained summer satin. In the fading light, its salty watermarks presented an almost perfect flower pattern. She narrowed her eyes and looked more closely at the scrap, feeling a smile creep up to her lips as she formulated her plan. She picked up her scissors and began to make sense of the cloth. She threaded a needle and drew the ends together along the back, then drew the needle back up through the middle of her tear-stained blossom. Yes. This was good.
Gilda reached for a seed pearl, strung it and punctuated the flower through its middle with first one pearl, then another, then another. Her flower, her plan, continued to take shape. Looking again at the bodice, Gilda carefully selected her target and attached her tearful flower to the dress, central to the breast, where it would rest directly above the beating heart of its wearer. She cocked her head and smiled at her handiwork.
And so began Gilda’s career in bespoke wedding finery.
For a sweet girl from Wichita, Gilda plucked a long strand of her own hair, threaded it with seed pearls and wove it into the sleeve of her gown. The added embellishment drew nothing but praise from the bride. Gilda just smiled at her own private joke and charged a premium for the alteration. A local socialite walked away with a sequin fashioned from Gilda’s fingernail sewn into her bodice, and Mr. Dean’s daughter, a woman with questionable morals and bad manners, celebrated her wedding day sporting a cluster of polished gallstones on one shoulder of her Grecian-style wedding dress.
Big, plain and clever Gilda would never be anyone’s bride. But in the decades to follow, she made sure a part of her would always walk down the aisle.
Feature photo: Shutterstock
Be kind, my friends… this is my very first work of fiction in over 25 years. 🙂 I hope you enjoyed it!
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