The closet was musty and midsummer-hot, and the cloud of folded tulle spilled off the shelf like a meringue off a pie. I breathed in the heat—eyes closed, I might even have been back at my childhood home—and wondered if the veil was going to disintegrate in my hands.
It was not my wedding veil.
Mine had been nothing much, a simple length of tulle edged with white ribbon, anchored by a sole hair comb. It had a vaguely ironic, afterthought-y sort of vibe, as if were not an actual veil, but meant to telegraph one. I lent it to an old roommate for her own wedding, and now I don’t even know where it is.
This veil, on the other hand, was utterly in earnest. If my own veil had been minimalist, then this one was a maximalist statement about marriage—or at least a maximalist statement about weddings. First of all, the veil was huge—yards and yards of cascading tulle, anchored to a little cap with combs that lodged on top of the head.
You couldn’t see the cap because the lace-encrusted edge of the tulle covered it entirely. The effect in pictures has always seemed odd to me: the lace rounded and submissive over the head, not queen-like and triumphant as I’d always imagined a bride to be. (Witness my defective theological understanding…)
But the lace: Almost forty-five years later, it’s still the most beautiful lace I’ve ever seen, thickly embroidered Alencon lace that stretches on and on, all around the length of the tulle. I look at it today, at how finely it is crafted, and witness again what a wonderful choice for a bride it was.
The dress was no less spectacular: in an era when we expect wedding dresses to be both exorbitant and sewn together from varieties of polyester, this dress (tiny, tiny—I probably could not get it over my arm) was made of stiff, quality faille, itself layered with Alencon lace and gathered sleeves with flat grosgrain bows.
The dress is now lost to history. The marriage ended little more than a decade after the dress was worn on a hot June day at the First Baptist Church of Yazoo City, in 1973. The veil remains.
The dress and the veil were my oldest sister’s, chosen by her and expensive for the era, from the noted bridal house Priscilla of Boston (later purchased by an international conglomerate and spun into oblivion).
As I’ve been told, my parents balked at the cost and my sister was willing to pay for a good portion of the dress with her own money, because this was the one she wanted. (The wedding was otherwise a modest, distinctively Southern, Protestant affair, with cake and punch and butter mints shaped like roses. I was a hot, grouchy child in a sky blue dotted Swiss dress. )
And then the wedding was over, and the dress was hung in its suffocating plastic zipper bag in the living room closet, and was forgotten amid the overall family chaos of the 1970s.
My sisters married in stair-step years—1973, 1974, and 1975—and each year the wedding dress became a little looser and less fancy, until my final sister was married in ecru muslin with an Empire waist. Two of those three marriages went the way of so many others in that era.
In that sense, my family’s own troubled narrative mirrored the stereotype of that whole generation—and the dress in the closet came, within a decade, to be a relic, redolent of a lost age, left in the closet alongside a mohair coat and the white linen suit in which my father was married.
All of the objects in my mother’s house, for that matter, became like specimens in a Joseph Cornell box, their meaning sealed and quizzical. My niece and nephews found the faded and musty house a treasure for dubious discoveries, and even now, decades later, I can put myself to sleep by wandering from one room of that house to the next in my head, pulling open drawers and closets and smelling memorized scents.
If, as physicists say, there are indeed parallel universes, then these rooms exist vividly present as in my mind.
At some point, the weight of the Priscilla of Boston dress’s train bowed the plastic hanger in the bag so far that it broke, and the dress fell into a wad. Nobody even noticed this until we emptied my mother’s house in 2011 when the dress was lost. I took the veil home where it ended up in a closet until I found it in August of this year and decided to bring it into the light.
What would I do with it? Use the lace to trim an Easter dress for my daughter, or a set of elaborate linen napkins? Would it be bad luck, in fact, given the sadness that tulle had absorbed over the decades?
I filled the kitchen sink with warm water, squirted in some gentle soap. Then I immersed the veil under the surface, sweeping it with my hand. Over the course of a day, I rinsed and re-washed it, taking care, the water running gray. Some of the lace was mildewed and I poured in a capful of bleach. I squeezed it out carefully and dried it over the railing of my back stairs, watching the tulle wave like mirage in the breeze.
And then it was I saw that the lace was blessed—it was here, in fact: Had been through the message and the dark closet of oblivion, to arrive at my hand as a testimony to my sister’s sense of beauty and joy. I will not cut it apart: I will save it in full, waiting for my daughter.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Caroline Langston
A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Caroline Langston is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is a widely published writer and essayist, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and a commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered.