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The best of South African literature
A teddy bear, held close every night, becomes a best friend. A golf ball, hit for a hole in one, is kept as a trophy. And a wedding dress, worn seven times across three generations, becomes a treasure and a symbol of what matters most in life: each other.
Seven women, seven wedding days, one dress, with long lace sleeves, a full skirt and delicate buttons running down the back.
The gown has been taken in and let out. Stained and cleaned and stained again. It’s no longer made of just satin and lace – it is stitched now with stories, memories and prayers. It stands as a reminder to each woman who walks down the aisle of how much she carries the others within her. She takes their lifeblood and their lessons. Their strengths and their failings.
The dress has come to hold a family code: “This is who we are, what we believe.” But even as a bride wears it, she is stepping away toward a life of her own and will have to decide how much of that code comes with her.
Still, just by slipping it on, she is tied to her mother, sisters, aunts and grandmother as never before. If she’s paying attention, she’ll feel the devotion among them and the pain they’ve caused one another – not on purpose, but out of the human imperfection that makes hurt as intrinsic as love in any close relationship.
But in the dress, she’ll understand why they went on loving, anyway.
Rita Paszkiewicz’s mother didn't approve of her choice. In truth, Rita wasn’t always so sure about him either.
She had been set up on a blind date with Bob Zgorski in October 1954. The second time they went out, he proclaimed they’d get married. “Well, I hope not too soon!” she responded.
But Bob meant what he said. And after a year-long courtship, Rita continued to rebuff his entreaties to wed, so they broke up.
A few months later, friends offered to send each of them out on another blind date. They arrived at the meeting point only to find each other. Within months, Bob and Rita were planning a wedding.
Rita’s mother had to be convinced. Her father, a businessman, liked Bob. Though the young man from Pennsylvania had only a junior-high education, he showed an entrepreneurial streak, opening a bike repair shop, then a service station. But he had been ill for much of his young life, until doctors finally repaired a damaged oesophagus, and Rita’s mother worried about what her daughter would be in for.
“He’s not going to be well!” she told Rita. But no one was ever good enough for her mother’s children, so Rita, strong-willed and in love, ignored the objections. Bob, 26, was kind and honest, with street smarts and a great sense of humour. A date was set for September 1956.
Rita fell in love with a gown she saw in a magazine, but none of the stores in town carried it. The owner of Judy’s Bridal Shop in Baltimore told her to bring in the photo and promised to make a replica.
It turned out just as Rita envisioned. At 21, she walked down the aisle of Sacred Heart of Mary Church in Baltimore. “I felt like a princess,” she remembers. “I loved it.” The couple were toasted – with a home-cooked meal prepared by the church ladies – at a nearby reception hall and sent on their way, with few thoughts of the life that was to come.
“At that point you don’t think like a real grown-up,” says Rita, now 77. “You don’t even begin to think of what could happen down the road. You’re just in love then, and you want to be married. You want to have a family.”
By 1963, the couple had five children younger than six. Bob and Rita had grown up in large Catholic families and had not considered anything else. They eventually had seven children.
When their first child, Gary, was born, Bob thought he looked like he was hiding nuts in his cheeks; from then on, he was “Squirrel”. The next baby, Renee, looked like a peaceful lamb, so she became “Lambie”. Then came Kevin, “Chip”; and Robyn; and Rhonda, “Kitten”. Rachelle made her arrival and was nicknamed “Bunny”. The baby, Roxanne, was “Dove”.
Bob and Rita made their priorities abundantly clear to their children. They prized education, hard work, faith and commitment to family. Each child was enrolled in a single-sex Catholic school and expected to attend college. They would spend summers working in Bob’s business, which had grown to seven stores, and receive the same wages as any other employee. They would learn to put their trust in God. And they would watch out for each other, acting alternately as friend, protector or conscience.
No one who meets her today would believe it, but Lambie used to be shy.
Although headstrong like her mother, she was a wallflower in adolescence, never sure of herself. But when a recruiter persuaded her to attend Berry College in Georgia, she came alive in a way no one expected. “I found out I am actually a leader,” she says.
She also found out how it felt to fall in love. Chris Renner was her opposite. He met her fiery drive with laid-back flexibility. “He wasn’t afraid of me, and he wasn't afraid to let me be me,” she says.
After graduation, she told her parents she was staying in Georgia, where Chris was working at a lumber mill to save for optometry school. That Christmas, she announced she was engaged. Her parents seemed thrilled. But they were nervous that it would fall to Lambie to support Chris through school.
Months later, Rita asked Lambie to move home to plan the wedding. When Lambie arrived, her mother told her there wasn’t going to be a wedding. “Sorry, but there’s a lot to talk about here,” Lambie remembers Rita saying.
Lambie was angry and ready to marry in spite of her parents’ concerns, but Chris refused to elope.
“You may think now that you are willing to walk away from your family and be estranged from them,” he said. “But I can see how important your family is in your life, and I can’t let you do it.”
Chris travelled to Baltimore and sat down across from Bob and Rita. “What would it take for us to get your blessing?” he asked. They laid down three requirements: that Chris own a house, that he be able to pay for school himself, and that Lambie prove she could earn enough to support them.
By the next year, with a little help from his parents and student loans, Chris returned with their requirements fulfilled. Rita started planning the wedding.
Without much forethought, Lambie asked if she could wear her mother’s dress. “I don’t know if the turmoil to get to this point contributed to my wanting to wear the dress sort of as a peace offering,” she says. “I don’t feel like I was the one who needed to offer any peace, but maybe as a child who wants to please her mother I did.”
The morning of her wedding, in 1983, Lambie put on the dress and danced around the kitchen with her sisters.
Rita eventually regretted not trusting her daughter’s judgement and now considers Chris “one of the most wonderful men I’ve ever met”.
Bunny Zgorski wanted to be a woman of the world. Travel had never topped her parents’ agenda, but she was adventurous. She double-majored in international business and Spanish and became a sales executive for Nestlé.
But in 1989, friends set her up with a former competitive swimmer who worked in real estate. He was nice enough, so she agreed to a second date. He picked her up at her parents’ home, and when she sat down for breakfast the next morning, Rita declared: “You’re going to marry that guy!”
“No,” Bunny insisted. “I’m not going to marry him. His last name is Lamb. I will not be Bunny Lamb for life.”
But on the third date, they kissed and something changed. “I just really, really liked him,” she says. “And I never looked back.”
Not quite two years later, Bunny walked down the aisle in the dress her mother and sister had worn.
“I felt very special. And I felt this connection to my parents.”
Greg wanted two kids; Bunny always imagined a large family like the one she grew up in. They settled on three.
Kitten was the sensitive one and, even as a girl, loved babies and couldn’t wait to become a wife and mother.
In the early 1990s, her younger sister Dovey said there was a man Kitten needed to meet. At first the new guy didn’t seem like a match, but somewhere along the way Kitten fell in love. They were engaged after a year.
Kitten, who now uses the nickname Kitt, had never been happier than when she wore her mother’s dress on her wedding day in 1994.
Her first son was born nine months to the day after her wedding. Not quite two years later, he had a brother, followed by two sweet little sisters. Life was the domestic tableau Kitt always wanted. She stayed home to care for the babies while her husband worked. The marriage wasn’t perfect, but they were happy. Or she was, anyway.
“I didn’t know my spouse as well as I thought I knew him,” she says now. After more than 15 years of marriage, she was served with a separation agreement. “I almost had a heart attack,” she recalls. “This doesn’t happen in my family.”
Kitt, 48, worries most about the impact the divorce will have on her children. “I don’t want them to grow up thinking, ‘Okay, I can just divorce.’ “
Sometimes her kids ask if she is sad when she thinks back to her wedding. “I tell them, 'No, because number one, if I didn’t meet and marry Dad, I wouldn’t have you. And number two, it’s still one of the happiest days of my life.’ “
When Dovey Zgorski, now 42, was in school, her siblings and their friends would carry her through the hallways. She was the baby of the family.
At college that changed. No one at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh knew her as “one of the Zgorski girls”. She was just Dovey. “I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I have a personality. I am my own person. And I just had a ball.”
After college she moved closer to home and became a first grade teacher. As she had set Kitten up with her future husband, Kitten arranged a blind date for Dovey.
“I totally knew, the second I saw him, that we were going to get married,” she says of Chris Jett. “It was comfortable. You could see his soul when you looked in his eyes.”
Two years later, they were engaged. But she was just 5 foot 1 inch (1.54 metres) and the wedding dress was far too big, but it was made to fit beautifully by the time she met Chris at the altar in 1996.
Within a few years, Dovey and Chris had a daughter, followed by three sons. Dovey came alive as a mother.
“They’re just so much fun,” she says of her children, who range in age from six to 13. But in truth, they’re fun because she’s fun. Above the kitchen table at their home in Ocean City, she has painted the words “Happy Day Café.” Outside the children’s bedrooms hangs a white board Dovey updates daily with their schedules and a positive message: “Thank you for making the world a better place!”
Robyn Zgorski’s three younger sisters married before she did, but that didn’t bother her. She was busy: earning a doctorate, seeing the world, becoming a teacher.
She met Tip Clifton in an Annapolis bar on the day of a cousin’s wedding shower. Tip and a couple of buddies made a game of shooting bottle caps on to Robyn’s wide-brimmed hat. He memorised her phone number and called the next day. Three dates later, they had their first kiss.
Robyn was 35 when she headed to the altar in her mother’s gown in 1997, and 37 when she had her first child, a daughter. Soon, she had another daughter, then a son.
Of the five girls, she suspects she is most like their mother, sharing Rita’s high energy and her love of control. But Robyn pushes back against that intrinsic need to protect, not wanting it to limit her children’s ability to grow.
“Giving birth is the first piece of letting go,” she says. “And every day you have to let them go again.”
Robyn, 50, thinks there are advantages to being an older parent and having only three kids. At night, she lies in bed with her daughters and talks about life, about friendships and heartache and the meaning of it all. She has more wisdom to share than she would’ve had in her 20s.
“We have such a neat relationship – and I really didn’t have that with my mom because she had seven kids,” Robyn says.
And marriage has become better with the years. “We both know we’re there. We’re in it for ever.”
After the trouble around her wedding, Lambie and Rita slowly repaired their relationship. But Lambie came away with “a little scar” on her heart and a resolve not to repeat her mother’s mistakes. That pledge would be tested.
In raising her four children in Fairfax Station, Lambie developed fresh admiration for her parents. Just as they had, she sent her children to Catholic schools and emphasised a strong work ethic.
In one significant way, however, she hoped to be a different kind of mother: she intended to stop parenting her children when they were grown.
In her junior year of college, Lambie’s oldest, Ali, told her parents that she and her boyfriend were planning to travel through South America during the summer holidays. Horrified, Lambie and her husband tried to dissuade her, but Ali was determined. Rita offered a possible solution: tell Ali they wouldn’t pay for the last year of college if she went.
“No, I’m not going to do it. I will not cut her off,” Lambie, now 52, recalls saying. “So, Ali went on the trip. And we lived through it.” But other challenges were to come.
At the University of Virginia, Ali majored in religious studies and bioethics. She inherited her dad’s thoughtfulness and flexibility and her mother’s drive, a combination that served her well as she launched a career in health care policy.
Almost three years ago, she followed the family tradition and accepted the offer of a blind date. Dinner turned into wine and a walk. “We talked all night long,” she says.
GP Manson could debate politics and philosophy at length, but he also brought out Ali’s silly side, and her sweetness.
“We’re stupid together,” she says. “And I hadn’t had that freedom to be totally myself in all those ways before.”
Eighteen months later, GP proposed at the breakfast table.
When Ali and GP said they wanted to share an apartment after getting engaged, Lambie’s commitment to letting her children make their own decisions was overridden by her deeply held beliefs.
Lambie and Chris told Ali that if she and GP moved in together, there was no point in throwing the big wedding that was in the works.
“The wedding is to celebrate that next phase of your life,” Lambie said. “So, if you’re going to be in that phase already, then what’s the party about? It seems like a farce.”
The subject was dropped, and wedding planning continued.
Trickier still was the question of religion. Lambie never imagined anything for her daughter other than a Catholic family. But the compromise Ali and GP reached was to marry in the church and baptise their future children, but not raise them in the religious education Ali had.
“I think the best you can do is to set the best example and then to pray that if something is going to awaken – if it’s a true faith – that there’ll be some spark of that in the soul,” Ali says.
For almost a decade, Ali was the only female grandchild in the family. So she was drafted for service at all of her aunts’ weddings, as a flower girl or junior bridesmaid. She watched each of them walk down the aisle in her grandmother’s dress and kept a photo from Bunny’s wedding day on her dresser.
Still, she never gave the gown much thought. It was beautiful, but seemed mostly like a memory. When Lambie asked what kind of dress she wanted to buy, Ali was surprised to hear herself saying: “Well, I guess I want to wear your dress.”
Lambie was stunned. After Robyn’s wedding, the dress had been shoved under Rita’s bed without even being cleaned – no one imagined it might be used again. When they pulled it out, the gown was yellowed and torn. Rita and Lambie helped Ali try it on. It was ill-fitting and unflattering, but the sight made her grandmother cry.
Lambie prayed Ali wouldn’t change her mind. In some way she thought that maybe this act – her daughter wearing her mother’s wedding dress – would say what words could never fully express.
“I know how much it would mean to Rita. And anything I can do to let her know that I really do appreciate her is good,” Lambie says. “Because I want her to know that I love her.”
The gown was sent to an expert seamstress, who flattened the sleeves that a previous bride had puffed, and meticulously patched the lace. Ali found a simple sheath to wear for the reception and bought strappy gold shoes to go with both.
The sky was clear and the air was crisp for the wedding in April. Ali stood in her parents’ living room while Rita and Lambie latched each button of the 56-year-old dress. Ali winked at the flower girl, Robyn’s nine-year-old daughter. All day, the house had been a frenzy of hairdos and make-up and bridesmaids. Just before it was time to leave, Lambie told her husband to turn on the music. Chapel of Love began to play. Dovey danced around the kitchen with her son. Rita gave Ali a blessing. Kitt, Bunny and their broods were already on the way to the church. Lambie leaned against the door frame and sighed. Her eyes filled with tears as she looked at her daughter.
“It looks right,” Ali said of the dress. “It looks like home. It looks like family.” – The Washington Post