A New Dress for Lucy

Lucy saw the dress in the window of Carlstrum’s General Store. It was the color of lilacs with sprigs of lace at the neck and sleeves. Lucy hadn’t seen lilacs since her family moved from Salt Lake City. Mother had planted a lilac start, but so far it hadn’t developed enough to produce any blossoms.

She tugged at her mother’s arm. “Oh, Mama, look at that dress.”

Mama checked the list she held for what she would need in the general store. They had already been to the feed and seed store, and Lucy’s brother Thomas was still in the blacksmith’s shop. Her mother always went to the general store last, because it was the most enjoyable.

She glanced up at the dress. “It’s very pretty, dear.”

Lucy liked pretty things, but had to control her desires because her family was struggling with the new farm. Since President Brigham Young had sent her family and several others to settle in the New Harmony area, life had been difficult. It was dry and hot in the rugged, red-soiled desert country. The families were trying to raise cotton to sell to people in Salt Lake City, who often referred to Southern Utah as “Dixie.”

But Dixie was not yet producing abundant cotton as had been hoped. Water was precious and had to be used sparingly even for irrigation. Lucy’s father was the bishop of the town, and he was raising cattle as well as cotton to supply meat for the townspeople. It was the sale of beef that kept his family going.

Lucy gazed longingly at the dress. How it would set off her shiny brown hair and make her gray eyes glow! She could imagine herself wearing the dress to church, where all the other girls would see and envy her.

She flushed a little, feeling guilty, since Mama often told her that church was a place to worship, not to show off. All her dresses were plain gray flannel ones that had been remodeled from hand-me-downs. But this dress was beautiful!

Mama went into the general store to look at some bolts of cloth. “Look at this, Lucy,” she called. “We could make a pretty dress for you with this material.”

With a touch of excitement Lucy hurried to her mother’s side, but the material was just a plain yellow, brown, and black calico print. She had already seen several dresses around town made of it. “Oh, Mama, I need a special dress, not just an old faded calico,” she exclaimed, holding up the limp skirt she had on. “And just like everything else in Dixie—it’s the dusty colors of earth. Isn’t there any pretty material? Some blue or pink or lovely lilac?”

Her mother looked down at Lucy with an understanding smile. Her daughter really did need a new dress.

Lucy’s mother asked the storekeeper, who was standing behind the counter, “Have you any poplin, Mr. Carlstrum? Anything besides this calico here?”

“I had some rust-colored poplin, but Mrs. Newbitt bought it all to make curtains,” he replied.

Lucy was not consoled with Mr. Carlstrum’s offer of a peppermint stick. Her mother walked out of the store carrying the purchases she had made, a thoughtful look on her face. Lucy followed with her arms full of bundles. Silently she helped load the wagon. Thomas came from the blacksmith’s with the newly shod horse, hitched it to the wagon, and they started for home.

At the dinner table that night Lucy’s father announced that he would be taking a wagonful of men to Salt Lake for conference. “Thomas, you’ll be in charge while I’m gone.” Thomas sat up proudly in his seat as Bishop Peterson went on. “All of you children do what Thomas tells you. I hope everything will be green and growing when I come back.”

Thomas, Lucy, George, Charles, and little Carrie nodded their heads in assent.

Then their father turned to Mama and asked, “Emily, do you have a written list for me?”

“Yes,” she replied and added, “Lucy needs a new dress and there isn’t any material she likes in town. See if you can get some lavender lilac poplin or even sky blue or rose pink.”

“Lavender lilac, sky blue, or rose pink,” Lucy’s father repeated, considering the possibilities. “That’s a tall order, but I’ll try.”

Lucy jumped up, hugged her father, and smiled gratefully at her mother.

Lucy anxiously watched for the wagon’s return. She often climbed up into the barn loft to gaze off into the distance, until Thomas called to her to stop wasting time and come down and help with the chores.

“Papa’s wagon will come before you know it, if you spend your time working,” he told her. But even as she worked Lucy dreamed about a new dress.

When Papa finally came, it was George who caught sight of the wagon first, from the field where he was digging a ditch. Clouds of dust billowed above the road as George put his shovel over his shoulder and ran to meet the wagon. He jumped onto the tailgate, shouting across the fields to his brothers and sisters that their father was home.

Lucy was waiting at the house, breathless after running from the calf shed. “Papa! Papa! Where’s my dress yardage?” she cried as he swung her off the ground in a tight squeeze.

“You haven’t seen me for days and all you think about is yardage!” he teased. “It’s at the bottom of the pile, wrapped in brown paper. You’ll have to help me unload before you find it.”

The family greeted their father and quickly unloaded the wagon. Lucy happened to be alone when she came to the brown paper package. With trembling fingers she untied the string. She could imagine the smooth feel of poplin, the wonderful smell of new fabric, the color of lilacs or the sky or a rose …

Tears came to Lucy’s eyes when she saw that the material she had waited for was the color of muddy green ditchwater. It was poplin all right, and it smelled nice and new, but, oh, the color! She buried her head in the brown paper and tried to keep from crying out loud.

Mama came out of the house where she had been sorting supplies. She saw Lucy’s face buried in the material. “What is it, Lucy?” she asked gently.

“Oh, Mama!” Lucy turned to her mother and held her tightly. “The material is … oh, Mama, it looks terrible! We might as well have bought that calico, or made a dress out of a flour sack!”

Mama smiled and said, “I used to wear flour-sack dresses all the time, Lucy, and you did, too, when you were little. But don’t cry now. Papa will be back in a moment, and we can’t let him see tears.”

“All right, Mama,” Lucy promised, so when Papa came back to the wagon, she smiled as she held up the yardage. “Thank you.” Her throat choked. “It’s … it’s … thank you for the material, Papa.”

Her father looked at Mama and then at his daughter. “I know it’s not lavender lilac, Lucy, but it’s the best I could find. I think it will make you a fine dress.”

“I’m sure it will,” Mama said. “We’ll borrow a pattern. There are only three patterns in town, and I think Mrs. Taylor down the road has one near your size.”

Lucy tried to think of the muddy green poplin transformed into a dress. “The color’s not really so bad, Papa, if we put a little ribbon on it or maybe some lace.” She looked up to see her father smiling down at her.

Lucy wanted to sew the whole dress herself. Mama showed her how to alter the pattern and to save all the scraps of material. Then Lucy hand stitched the pieces with small even seams. When she tried on the half-made dress in front of Mama’s mirror, she cried out, “Mama, come look! The waist is way down below my middle! What shall I do?”

Mama tried to keep from laughing, because the dress did look a little strange. “Perhaps we could take up the shoulders. Mrs. Taylor is taller than I thought.”

Lucy made some alterations and tried the dress on again. This time the waist was too high, and the hem was just below her knees. “Mama! Look at it now!” she wailed.

“We’ll put in a wide waistband,” Mama suggested. “That’s the fashion this year.”

Shortly after the dress was finished, Papa invited a photographer to his home to take a picture of the entire family. Lucy, of course, wanted to wear her new dress. “I wish I had some pantalets to wear,” she told her mother. “A little bit of lace showing below the hem would look so fashionable.”

Again Mama had the answer. One beautiful thing she had brought from Salt Lake was a short jacket with ruffles all along the sleeves. “Put your feet through the sleeves, dear,” she instructed, “and nobody will be the wiser.”

In that picture, handed down as one of the precious heirlooms of her family, a smiling Lucy is wearing a beautiful dress with a fashionable wide waistband and with stylish ruffles showing just beneath its hem!

[illustrations] Illustrated by Jillair Henrie