Great-Grandmother's House Dresses

Late last year, Wallie Waters—my father’s first cousin—contacted me via Facebook and offered me some old clothes that belonged to my great-grandmother. I replied without hesitation, “Yes, I would love to have something that belonged to her. Please hold on to them for me.” 

Maggie Jones Lanier died twenty years before I was born, and so I have no memories of her. Few are alive in my family who possess even a faded photograph or a passed-down story to share with me of her sixty-two years on this pale-blue-dot-of-a-planet. Yet, I came into this world bearing bits and pieces of her DNA. She is part of me, and so I am curious about her—and thankful to her.

My new keepsakes—four of Maggie Jones Lanier's house dresses.

My new keepsakes—four of Maggie Jones Lanier's house dresses.

I know that she was born in the spring of 1884 and died in the fall of 1946. I know that she was married to Matthew “Math” Lanier, a tall, skinny man who lived to be ninety-nine, wore a hat, and walked with a cane. 

Maggie and Math shared a life together in a small community just north of Metter, Georgia. Together, they raised my papa (Henry Herman), Ruby, Brooks, Fred, Bonnie, Roland, Hubert, Elese, and Matthew. They are buried in the white, sandy soil of Rosemary Primitive Baptist Church amid hundreds of my paternal ancestors with monuments engraved with surnames such as Lanier, Jones, Daughtry, Parrish, and Donaldson.

At my Aunt Sybol’s ninetieth birthday party earlier this year, Cousin Wallie handed the paper sack to my sister and asked her to deliver the contents to me.

Two weeks later, I stood in my sister’s kitchen and unfolded the top of the sack. My hand reached in and touched the past—four vintage house dresses, a tattered bonnet, and some interesting undergarments, all worn by a woman I never knew personally. The pieces had not been worn for seven decades.

I focused on the house dresses.

Back in the day, women like my great-grandmother were worker bees, and house dresses were the uniforms of their daily lives. Their frocks were designed to be durable, practical, easy to move around in, and easy to launder, but with a touch of femininity. 

My great-grandmother’s dresses show several stains from her daily tasks and chores, and I pondered the origin of each stain.  Perhaps one dress was stained as she used the skirt of it to carry blackberries from the roadside to her kitchen to make a cobbler.  Maybe another stain at a waistband originated from grease popping outward from a black iron skillet as she fried the legs and wings of a young rooster. The brown blob on the backside of one? Maybe an oil stain she acquired leaning against the tractor after carrying a glass of water to my great-grandfather and waiting for him to drink up and hand the glass back to her. I’ll never know how the dresses were stained.  I can only imagine given the little I know of the lives of farm wives during the first half of the twentieth century.

All four of Maggie’s dresses are handmade, and I studied the hand stitching on their undersides. Indeed, my great-grandmother may not have owned a store-purchased dress in her lifetime. It’s plausible.

All four dresses were created with floral fabric, and so for a moment, I contemplated that perhaps I inherited my love of flowers and gardening from this woman. Three are made from a very thin cotton, designed to provide cool comfort during the sweltering summer days common in South Georgia. The fourth is made of a dark printed rayon.

The buttons on a blue and pink dress are exquisite and somewhat unexpected, like pearls resting in the dirt. That particular dress is a bit frillier than the others.  It’s embellished with lace that wants to fall apart in my hand when I touch it. I held it up against my body. Maggie must have been much shorter and thicker than me—and much bustier.

I breathed in the stale aroma of the dress, and my mind raced backward to memories of South Georgia cotton fields that look more like freshly fallen snow; of the feeling of cool, freshly-plowed dirt against my bare feet; of the warmth and weight of handmade quilts on a brisk winter’s morning; of carrying long cane fishing poles up to a pond; and of the intoxicating smell of the inside of a dark, scary tobacco barn.

I stuffed the garments back in the bag and drove home, all the while wondering what I would do with my newest keepsakes.  Would I find a seamstress to alter one for me to wear on occasion? Would I cut the house dresses into squares and make a blanket or quilt? Would I craft a pillow from the floral fabrics? Would I simply stow them in a closet and occasionally take them out and dream of Maggie?

16.99 18.99

I washed the house dresses carefully and ironed them on the lowest setting of my iron. I hung them in a breeze on the front porch and watched them dance against the back drop of a beautiful spring day, and I thought, “rebirth.” It’s a common theme of my thoughts—the idea of objects and souls being recycled and born again. 

How will Maggie’s dresses be reborn?  I haven’t decided yet, but they will. They will be transformed into something truly magnificent.

I’m sure that Maggie never imagined that one day, one of her great-granddaughters would want her old stained house dresses—that the youngest granddaughter of her oldest son would label her garments as “keepsakes,”  vow to care for them for the rest of her days, and write about them and their significance. But that is precisely what has happened. And each time I look at them, I will mouth a silent “thank you” to Maggie Jones Lanier for giving life to my grandfather, who gave life to my dad, who gave life to me.