Jean Seager — The Dress

Eveleth, MN 1911


Malka Godowsky stepped into the dress shop, so distracted by the task that awaited her that she nearly collided with a mannequin placed a little too near the doorway. The propinquity of this naked human form startled her, and she stopped to steady herself before she continued into the store. She brushed past a series of waist-high tables, each one showcasing fabric in solids, stripes, checks and prints. The bolts rose like multi-colored sentinels above coils of ribbons and trims. Malka hurried by the yellows, then the oranges, reds, purples, blues and greens. She took little note of the designs and textures surrounding her. Sunlight, which spilled into the shop from two narrow windows above the door, did little to dispel the chill in the spring air. Malka was accustomed to the cold. In the nine years she had lived in the northern Minnesota town of Eveleth, she rarely felt warm until July or August. It was cold in Poland, too.

Malka continued walking until she found Ingrid Einarsson, the shop’s owner and the only seamstress in town. Ingrid was a young widow and like Malka, she had three school-age children. Now she sat engrossed, her head curled forward, her feet on the floor and her hands on white satin that she fed into her sewing machine. The needle racketed up and down. A pincushion and several bobbins littered the machine’s dark wooden cabinet. Malka waited.  She didn’t want to interrupt Ingrid’s work, could not risk antagonizing her, for Ingrid was the only one who could help. It was not until the machine stopped that Malka cleared her throat and spoke.

“Mrs. Einarsson?” she said. Ingrid cut the thread and looked up at Malka.

“It’s nice to see you, Mrs. Godowsky,” she said, still seated, her voice flat. She nodded at Malka and went to the stove to pour a cup of coffee.

“It’s a wedding dress.” Ingrid pointed to the clouds of satin on the machine. “Would you like some coffee?”

Ingrid was never without a pot of coffee.

“No thank you,” Malka said, repulsed by the strong smell. And then she thought that maybe she should have said yes, and sat down to have a cup. If she added enough sugar, she could probably drink it without making a face. Had she seemed unfriendly? Well, she did not think of Ingrid as a friend. Her only friends were the few Jewish women who lived in town. She felt comfortable when she socialized with these women, when she shared a meal or played a few hands of cards with them. These were the people among whom she could let down her guard.

“What can I do for you?” Ingrid strode forward with a smile pasted on her face. Her blue dress, which matched her eyes, flowed around her calves. She looked pert and trim, well put-together. Malka smoothed the front of her own dark gray dress, which stretched over heavy breasts. Except for the white knitted cap that hid her hair, Malka always wore dark colors.

“A dress,” she said, “for me this time.” She had bought dresses for her six-year-old daughter Gussie, but never for herself.

“A special occasion?”

“I’m going to Yossie’s school on Thursday.” At ten, Yossie was her oldest, the one who played hockey and tennis, the one who would become a bar mitzvah in just three years. The one who never came home for dinner. She had stopped setting at place at the table for him.

“This Thursday?” Ingrid said.

“He’s getting an award. Student of the Year. On Thursday evening.”

“I don’t know, Mrs. Godowsky. That’s awfully short notice,” Ingrid said. A lump stuck in Malka’s throat.

“I’ve never been to school before. I’ve never been invited,” Malka said. “And so I never went. But now I’m going. For Yossie.” A few strands of hair fell from her cap and drew dark lines on the olive skin of her neck. With pudgy fingers, she tucked her hair back inside the wool head covering. Why hadn’t Ingrid congratulated her on Yossie’s achievement? Student of the Year was important, a big honor.

“Your dress, I don’t know if I’ll have enough time,” Ingrid said.

“Everyone will be there. All the children and their parents, too. Even Dziga says I need to wear a new dress.” This last statement was only partly true. Dziga was reluctant to spend the money for a dress, but she convinced him that she must have it. She promised to see if she could get it for less than $3.

“You should have come here a few weeks ago, Mrs. Godowsky.”

“I only found out about it this morning. Mr. Weber, the principal, came by to give me the news. He came right to my door. Imagine that. My Yossie…why he must be…” She could not think of the words. When she became emotional, her English failed her, and she lapsed into Yiddish or Polish. She didn’t dare speak a foreign language to Ingrid. It would be humiliating.

“I can’t go to Yossie’s school without a new dress,” Malka said. She hoped to sound more composed than she felt. If she had learned to sew with her mother in Poland, she wouldn’t be dependent on the kindness of Ingrid.

“I’ll do what I can, Mrs. Godowsky. Let me take your measurements.” Ingrid refilled her coffee cup and picked up a tape measure.

“It’s best if you take off your dress.” She pointed to a curtained area behind the ironing board.

Malka shuddered.

“I can’t,” she said.

“You can keep your undergarments on.” Again, the pasted-on smile. “If that helps.”

Malka froze. Modesty was a virtue. Mama and Papa in Pilzno taught her that. Especially Mama. What would Mama think if she could see her now? Mama could have sewed a dress in three days, would have dropped everything to do it.

“I’ll need your measurements,” Ingrid said. She tapped a yellow pencil on the table.

On the other hand, Malka needed a new dress. Was there any law in the Torah that prohibited her from disrobing for a dressmaker?

“It won’t fit you. Is that what you want?” Ingrid said. “A new dress and it doesn’t fit? It’s like two left feet.”

She tapped the pencil again and took a sip of coffee. The white china cup tinkled when she set it back on the saucer.

The rabbi, Rav Stein—he could tell her what to do. But Rav Stein was nowhere near Eveleth. He came to town once a year for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. She thought of Yossie, such a fine student, getting his award, his round face shining and his deep brown eyes looking at her, picking her out in the audience. He would pick her out, wouldn’t he?

Surely the Eternal One would want her to have a dress that fit. She prayed silently and asked His forgiveness, just in case. Then she entered the small, unfurnished dressing room behind the curtain. She put her pocketbook on the floor, untied a sash from her waist and watched her dress expand around her middle. Draping the sash over a hook, she reached behind her back to unbutton her dress. Her fingers trembled as she slipped it from her body, the faded gray fabric heavier than it had seemed this morning when had put it on. She gathered the garment and hung it on a wooden hanger, fastening the top button. She had purchased it before the twins were born.

Alone in the dressing room and clad only in her underwear and cap, Malka steeled herself for the measurements. She squared her shoulders. Thank heavens there was no mirror to confront her. She knew she was a little chunky and had been since the twins were born. She knew she looked hideous in her short-sleeved v-necked chemise and hand-knit bloomers. Even though she was encased in cotton and wool, she felt exposed. She took a few deep breaths.

“I’m ready, Mrs. Einarsson,” she said. With a double thwop, Ingrid opened the curtain and closed it behind her. Malka slumped over and put her hands in front of her chest.

“Baruch HaShem,” she said, invoking God in a whisper.

“I’ll be done in a trice, Mrs. Godowsky,” Ingrid said. She measured Malka’s waist and made notations on a small card. Malka closed her eyes, then opened them again as she teetered to one side and nearly lost her balance.

“Hold still,” Ingrid said. “Just hold still.”

“I’m sorry,” Malka said, chastened by Ingrid’s instruction. Inside her bloomers, her knees shook. The sweat dribbled down her sides.

“What sort of fabric would you like for your dress?” Ingrid asked. Malka could not think about fabric, not while she was standing in her underwear in the presence of someone she hardly knew. Ingrid wrapped the tape around Malka’s hips and tugged her clockwise. Malka was not sure how far to rotate. How many little steps should she take before Ingrid would be satisfied with her position? She stared at the wall.

“I think a floral print would be beautiful on you, something bright and cheerful,” Ingrid said. “What do you think?”

“I…um…I always wear dark colors,” Malka stuttered. Her hips in Ingrid’s face, she realized she had not bathed since last Friday when she had taken her weekly bath in preparation for Shabbos. How often did Gentiles bathe?

Ingrid made another notation on her card, placed her hands on Malka’s waist and rotated her in the other direction until the two women stood facing one another. Had Ingrid noticed how stiff she was?  Perhaps she should pull in her stomach so she would look more attractive. But then the measurements would be all wrong.

“You should get away from dark colors. Try something bright for spring,” said Ingrid. “Now, spread your arms so I can measure your chest.” Malka hesitated. What did her underarms smell like? She hoped there wasn’t a stain on her chemise.

“Relax, Mrs. Godowsky,” said Ingrid, “Just relax and hold out your arms.” Malka, feeling more exposed than ever, moved her arms outward. If Ingrid noticed the rivulets of Malka’s sweat, the seamstress did not let on. Instead, she wound the measuring tape around Malka’s breasts. She placed the tape on her nipples, and Malka felt them shrivel. Was a new dress worth this? She conjured up Yossie’s face, imagined him getting his award.

“Almost finished, Mrs. Godowsky. Stand up straight.” Ingrid measured the length of Malka’s back and the spread of her shoulders. “There. It wasn’t so bad, was it?” She rolled up her measuring tape and glanced at Malka out of the corner of her eye.

“No, it wasn’t so bad,” said Malka, thinking the opposite and looking away.

“You can get dressed and we’ll decide on a fabric.”

And Malka found herself alone in the dressing room once again. She nearly leapt into her dress and tied her sash so quickly that she had to redo it before she emerged, fully dressed but feeling as naked as the mannequin near the door.

“If I were you, I’d pick this one,” Ingrid said. She held a bolt of bright floral fabric.

“What do you have in dark blue?” The table across the shop was covered in blues, from turquoise to navy and everything in between.

“Come over here, Mrs. Godowsky,” Ingrid said, and she walked to a full-length mirror in the back corner of the shop.  Malka followed. She watched as Ingrid unrolled a few inches of the bright fabric. Despite herself, Malka smiled. A garden of yellow and green bloomed under her chin.

“These colors are perfect on you,” said Ingrid. She unrolled more of the fabric until it nearly reached the floor.

“I don’t know,” Malka said.

What would Dziga say if she came home with a dress that looked like a bouquet of flowers? Besides, they agreed to get the least expensive one possible. And this clearly was not it.

“How much will it cost?” Malka said.

“Four and a half dollars.”

“And for something plainer, something in dark blue?” Four and a half dollars was too much.

“Well, I couldn’t do it for less than three dollars, depending on which fabric you choose,” said Ingrid.

Malka paused. Then she decided.

“I’ll take the navy, the least expensive one you have,” she said. “In the least expensive style. Nothing too fancy.”

“Why don’t you get what you want?” Ingrid frowned. “You really should get what you want.”

“Can you have it by Thursday? In navy blue?” Malka asked. She should have been exhilarated with the thought of a new dress, her first one in years.

“I’ll do my best, but don’t forget I’ve got the wedding dress to work on. Come by the shop on Wednesday, so I can measure the hem,” said Ingrid.

“Thank you,” Malka said. She thought Ingrid had promised to make a dress for her. But she couldn’t be sure. What would she do if she came into the shop on Wednesday and the dress was not ready?

“And don’t blame me when you wish you had chosen the pretty fabric,” Ingrid said.

“I’ll see you on Wednesday,” Malka said, but Ingrid was already seated at her sewing machine pushing white satin under the presser foot.



“Mrs. Einarsson?” Malka said. Cloaked in a dark brown ankle-length dress, she walked past the mannequin, past the bolts of fabric, through the slits of light that brightened the crowded room until she found Ingrid with her head bent over the wedding dress. Her needle and thread moved with quick authority as she sewed pearl-shaped buttons to the sleeves. Extra buttons peppered her worktable.

“Mrs. Einarsson?” Malka said again.

“Just a minute,” Ingrid said. She finished attaching a button, snipped the thread and punched the needle into an empty spot on a red pincushion. When she stood, Malka saw the fabric of her dress featured large purple irises, which swayed when she moved.

“What can I do for you Mrs. Godowsky?” Ingrid said.

“I hope it’s not too late.”

“Too late for what?”

“I changed my mind about my dress,” Malka said.

“Oh?” Ingrid raised her eyebrows. How did she get such wonderfully thin eyebrows in a perfect reddish brown color? Malka’s eyebrows clung to her forehead in thick brown arches.

“It’s not what you think,” Malka said. “Have you started yet? Have you cut it out?”

“Not yet. I’ve been working on the wedding dress, like I told you.” She stood and motioned to the buttons on the table. Her arms were graceful.

“I want the other fabric, the green and yellow one, the one you thought would look so nice on me,” Malka said. She felt the color rise in her cheeks.

“You people never fail to surprise me,” Ingrid said. Malka clenched her teeth. You people? It must have been a slip of the tongue. Ingrid surely meant nothing by it and, as if confirming Malka’s thoughts, Ingrid smiled. It was not a pasted-on smile, but a friendly, genuine one. Her broad forehead shone in the morning light.

“That’s the spirit, Mrs. Godowsky. Would you like some coffee?”

Malka had much to do that day. She had to make bread and fix supper for Dziga all before noon. Tuesday was laundry day, too, so she had stripped the beds in preparation for washing the sheets. And Ingrid had said, “you people.” Having coffee with Ingrid was impossible.

“I’m sorry. I just don’t have the time,” she said.

“I don’t have much time either, but . . .” said Ingrid.

“Laundry day.” Malka shrugged.

“Sewing day,” Ingrid said. “Like every day.” She sighed and surveyed the nearly finished wedding dress and the bolts of fabric waiting for her scissors, her sewing machine and her expertise.

“About the money,” Malka said. “For the dress.”

“Four and half dollars. I told you that yesterday.” Ingrid straightened her back.

“Mrs. Einarsson, could we talk about it?”

“It’s four and a half dollars, Mrs. Godowsky. That’s the price.”

“I can pay you three dollars and also some boys’ clothing from our store. For your children. How does that sound?” Malka said. She thought it sounded reasonable. She had rehearsed the speech throughout the morning. And she could say more, if needed. She could talk about how the boys required new clothes to work in the iron mines this summer. All the boys in town worked in the mines as soon as they were old enough. And didn’t Dziga take eggs and carrots and spinach as payment for items in his store? Malka had made a reasonable offer to Ingrid. Ingrid should accept it. And once she did, Malka would convince Dziga to part with the appropriate amount of clothing.

”Your dress costs four and a half dollars,” Ingrid said. “And it will be worth it to you. It’ll be a beautiful dress and last you for years. A real value.”

”Oh, I’m sure you’re right,” Malka said. “Gussie loves the dresses you made her last summer, so I know you do good work, beautiful work.” Had flattery helped Malka’s cause? She looked at Ingrid’s face hoping to see a softening of cheek and jaw. She found none as she continued.

“Your boys will need clothes for the mines this summer. Wouldn’t they like new jackets to keep them warm when they go underground?”

“I can’t. It’s just not the way I do business.”

“But you can. Dziga can give them rubber boots, too. He sells the finest quality in everything. Your boys would be so happy with new clothes.” Malka’s fingers clutched her pocket book and her fingernails dug into the palms of her hands. Dziga’s store carried practical clothing, everyday trousers, shirts and jackets for the men and boys who lived in the town. He sold the most durable items he could find. They were not stylish, but they met the needs of the mine workers.

“I’m sorry, but if you can’t pay for it…” said Ingrid. Her voice trailed off into the stuffy air of the shop. “Perhaps you should save up for the pretty one, and come back in a few months.”

“In a few months, it won’t matter,” Malka said.

Ingrid came forward, pulled out a wooden chair and sat at the table, her arms in a triangle in front of her.

“The blue dress will be pretty enough,” she said. “Pretty is as pretty does.”

It would not be pretty enough. Malka knew that. She couldn’t go to Yossie’s school in the cheap blue dress.

“Mrs. Einarsson, about the coffee…” Malka said.

“The coffee?” Ingrid folded her elbows across the irises on her chest.

“All of a sudden, a cup of coffee sounds good. Would that be all right?” Malka resolved to plead her case. And what better way to reach Ingrid than over a cup of coffee?

“I really don’t have the time, Mrs. Godowsky. But I suppose so.” She walked the few steps to the stove, poured some coffee into two white china cups and set them down on the table. She scooped up the satin wedding dress and hung it on the mannequin near the front door.

“I spilled some coffee on a christening dress right after Lars died,” she said, “and I vowed I’d never do that again. Once bitten, twice shy.” She brought a porcelain sugar bowl, a little cracked near the top but still serviceable, to the table. “Would you like sugar in your coffee?”

“Yes, please.” Malka sat at the table across from Ingrid and prepared herself for another speech. She dumped three teaspoons of sugar into the vile-smelling dark liquid and stirred the contents, the spoon scraping the sides of the cup as she did. She took the smallest sip she could manage. She should have added more sugar.

“Delicious.” She parted her lips in a weak smile. “Your coffee is as good as your dresses.”

“I expect my dresses are better.” Ingrid said. “Now what is it? I’m running a dressmaking shop, not a confessional.”

Malka imagined Yossie who didn’t come home until after dinner. She imagined him sitting at Billy’s house doing his homework and eating Mrs. Berdahl’s food. She saw him playing with Billy until the sun went down, sharing confidences with his best friend’s family instead of with her.

“The dress is not for me,” Malka began, “it’s for Yossie.”

“I took your measurements yesterday, not Yossie’s,” Ingrid said.

Malka knew it was a joke, but she did not laugh.

“He spends all of his time at Billy’s. That’s his best friend. And even though I ask him to bring Billy to our house, he never does. I tempt him with rugelach. He used to like rugelach. But he never brings anyone home to meet me. And when Dziga asks him to help in the store, Yossie always has an excuse.” Was she complaining too much? Should she be sharing this with a Christian woman, someone she hardly knew? It didn’t feel right and yet she could think of no other way to get her dress.

“And a dress will make him come home after school?” Ingrid asked. “And help in the store?”

“He doesn’t even come home for supper. I make gefilte fish and fried liver, his favorite foods, but it doesn’t matter. If we were in Pilzno, he would come home for supper.”

“You’re not in Pilzno, Mrs. Godowsky,” Ingrid said.

“Oh, don’t I know that.” And Malka told Ingrid how she and Yossie had lived in Pilzno for three years without Dziga, how Dziga had gone to America to work until he could send for them.

“Yossie looked to me for everything then,” she said, “while I wondered why it was taking so long. After a while, I forgot what Dziga looked like, so I remembered him by looking at Yossie: the same big eyes and full lips. When Yossie smiled, it was as if all of the sadness in my life went away. We were so close…and now…”

“And now, you’re afraid of losing him.” Ingrid finished Malka’s sentence.

“Yes, that’s it, Mrs. Einarsson, I’m afraid…so afraid…of losing him.” She shook as she tried to pick up her coffee cup, then gave up when she feared she would drop it. She had never confessed this to anyone, especially not to Dziga, who worked so many hours he had little time for his children. To Dziga, this would be a trifle. That Ingrid understood seemed a miracle.

“He never brings anyone home, like he’s…I just don’t know.” She paused. “But if he could see me in a beautiful dress, the flowered one…if he could be proud of how I look, he would come back to me.” She fixed her eyes on the scratches that marred the dark surface of the table.

“It’s a terrible thing to lose a son,” Ingrid said, “Why, my own son, my Ernie, he’s…well, never mind.”

“Yossie, my first-born, he is the world to me.” Malka said.

“A dress, it won’t make any difference. He might not even notice it.” Ingrid reached across the table, her hands almost touching Malka’s shoulder before she lowered them again.

“But he might,” Malka said. She forced herself to look at Ingrid, her eyes pleading. “I’ll go to school and I’ll be prettier than all of the other mothers. And Yossie will be proud.”

“Compared to my Ernie, your Yossie is a walk in the park, Mrs. Godowsky. But all right. I’ll make that dress for you.” Ingrid’s mouth turned up in a smile, but her eyes were dull. She sighed.

“Thank you, Mrs. Einarsson.”  Malka’s heart soared as she imagined herself bedecked in yellow and green. Baruch HaShem.

“The price is still four and a half dollars,” Ingrid said. “You can give me three dollars now and owe me the rest.”

“Oh! I’ll pay you as soon as I can. Oh, Mrs. Einarsson.” She would cut every corner, save every penny. She didn’t need to spread butter—or jam—on her bread, if it meant she could pay for the dress.

“I know you will, Malka. I trust you.”

Ingrid had called her Malka. Surely she should keep the conversation going. Should she ask about Ernie? Ingrid had mentioned him. Or perhaps the weather or the price of coal would be suitable topics for conversation. She took a sip of coffee, which although cold, had lost its bitterness.

“Mrs. Einarsson. Ingrid. Can I call you Ingrid? Such a pretty name. I’ve told you about my problems with Yossie. Do you want to tell me about Ernie? How are your boys?”

“Hockey, hockey and better not to ask.” Malka waited for more, for an explanation. Why was it better not to ask? But Ingrid sat with her thin lips clamped together in silence, and Malka wished she had asked about the weather or the price of coal. She fidgeted, her fingers awkward in her lap. Was it time to leave the shop? She had shared too much about Yossie. She had got carried away with her own confidences, her own needs; she had not been considerate of Ingrid’s feelings. To Ingrid, she was nothing more than a Jewish immigrant who happened to be a customer, and an infrequent one at that. And yet, how could Ingrid be so friendly and so cold at the same time?

Ingrid stood to clear the table.

“I’ll need to work on your dress if I’m going to be ready to mark your hem by tomorrow. Come by in the afternoon,” she said, and Malka nodded and then bustled out the door. The dress – she would have it on Thursday. Even if Ingrid did not want to talk to her, even if she shared too much about her own son, Ingrid promised to make the dress—the beautiful one—for Yossie.



Malka slipped the new dress over her head, wriggled her arms into the elbow-length sleeves, and straightened the fabric over her hips. The dress felt soft on her skin. Although she couldn’t see what she looked like in Ingrid’s mirrorless dressing room, she imagined herself transformed in this, the most beautiful, the most colorful item of clothing she ever owned. For a moment, she stood alone, catching her breath, running her hands over the smooth seams, and admiring the neckline. She swiveled her hips and watched the fabric swirl around her shins. She laughed. Then she stepped out of the dressing room.

“Just look at you, Mrs. Godowsky,” Ingrid said. “So pretty. As pretty as a picture.” She took Malka’s hand and as if presenting a queen to a royal court, she led Malka to the mirror.

“There,” Ingrid said, and Malka gazed at her image. The garment flowed around her in green and yellow. Her eyes were drawn to the dropped waist, which was decorated with a green ribbon and matching rosette. The ribbon accented the curve of her hips and hid her thick middle. A high collarless neckline was trimmed with a similar green ribbon. The fabric glided over her shoulders, then down over her arms and chest. She made a half turn so she could see herself from the side. A look over her shoulder revealed the back of the dress falling in lyrical folds. She smiled.

“Mrs. Einarsson, it’s everything I’d hoped for.” Malka pulled three crumpled dollar bills from her change purse and handed them to Ingrid. Ingrid straightened the bills, placed the money in a drawer, and scrutinized Malka.

“Do you mind if I give you some advice?” Ingrid asked.

“What is it?”

“Your hair. I know it’s part of your religion and I hope I’m not imposing. Well, I probably am imposing, but I’ve got to tell you—you’d look so much better if people could see your hair, if you took off that white cap.”

“Yossie doesn’t like it either. He always asks me to take it off, but I can’t,” Malka said. “It’s just part of being Jewish, and I always wear it, except inside my house.” She did not want to talk about the commandment to hide any aspect of herself—such as her hair—that would be alluring to men. It would take too much explaining.

“I’m sorry I mentioned it, Mrs. Godowsky.” Ingrid said. “You’ll knock ‘em dead, even wearing the cap. And I hope your Yossie will be proud of you.”

“I haven’t told him yet. I haven’t told him I’m coming or about my new dress. Somehow I wanted to wait until I saw the dress. And now that it’s so beautiful…”

“You haven’t told him?”

“I’ll tell him tonight, when he comes home after supper. And I’ll tell him Dziga is coming, too and Gussie and Aaron. I’ll tell him about my dress and how pretty I will look.”

“That’s good, Mrs. Godowsky. Now let me measure your hem.” Ingrid opened a drawer in her sewing machine cabinet and extracted a piece of white chalk. She picked up a yardstick, snapped a pincushion over her wrist, and slid a low stool toward Malka. Malka mounted the stool and stood, knees locked as Ingrid planted the yardstick next to the dress. The seamstress marked the hem, moving around Malka so she could reach each section.

Tomorrow night at school. He would introduce her to all of his teachers. And then he would show her off to his friends.

“This is my Mama,” he would say, his face full of admiration. And he would decide that he should come home for supper and invite Billy to have rugelach.

And Dziga, too.

“You look lovely,” he would say. Then when she told him the dress cost more than the three dollars they had agreed on, he would not be angry. He would be glad.

“I’ll work even harder at the store,” he would say,” if it means you can look so beautiful.”

“And I’m going to save money,” she would say. “I haven’t spread butter or jam on my bread since Tuesday.”

He would squeeze her hand in appreciation. They would work together, a team focused on a common goal. And Yossie home for supper.

Ingrid pulled Malka out of her reverie.

“What do you think?” Ingrid had pinned up the hem so Malka could approve the length.

Malka stepped off the stool and beamed.

“It’s perfect.” She wondered if that could be considered boasting and silently asked HaShem to forgive her.

“You can pick it up tomorrow.” Ingrid, her pincushion still perched on her wrist, put her hands on her hips and smiled at Malka. “It will be here, hemmed and ironed and ready to wear.”

“I can’t thank you enough, Mrs. Einarsson.”

“You’ll have to come back on Friday and tell me all about it. This is the first time I’ve made a dress with such a purpose.”

“I will. I’ll have coffee with you on Friday. I’ll bring some rugelach—then you’ll know what it is—so delicious. And I’ll tell you how my Yossie is proud of me again. How he’s coming home for supper and bringing Billy with him.”

“If only it were that easy, Mrs. Godowsky,” Ingrid said.



Malka slowed her pace as she approached Ingrid’s shop. Outside the door, she stopped. The sun beat on her back and a fierce wind billowed her skirt. With her heart as heavy as a pickax in her chest, she willed herself into the shop. She avoided the mannequin, walked through the rows of fabric, and stepped around the ironing board and the sewing table until she found Ingrid at her machine.

“Hello Mrs. Godowsky. I see you’ve come for your dress,” Ingrid said. “You’ll love it.” She clapped her hands. Ingrid did not look at Malka, but instead went to get the dress.

“Here it is!” she said. “As promised. I always keep my promises.” She held it up for Malka to see.

“It’s beautiful,” Malka said, and it was. It was hemmed and ironed and would have transformed her into woman of glamour. And Yossie would have looked at her with pride. And the other mothers, and Dziga. Even the twins.

“And not only did I finish your green and yellow dress, I finished the wedding dress, too. Come, have a look-see.” Ingrid hung Malka’s dress on a hook and bounced toward the front of the store. She wore a light pink dress with a wide black belt. I’ll never again have hips like Ingrid’s, Malka thought, if I ever did in the first place. As if it mattered.

Ingrid halted when she arrived at the wedding dress. It adorned the mannequin in the doorway. Somehow, Malka had walked by without noticing it. Now, Ingrid patted the dress, touching the lace, the ribbons, the buttons, the fabric, a shimmering river of white.

“A dress for a new beginning,” Ingrid said. “It’s one of my best. I like to imagine the heart pounding inside it as the bride walks down the aisle, the love that fills it, like the love inside your dress. For Yossie. It makes me happy that I made you a dress that’ll have so much love inside. Even if you still owe me $1.50 for it.” She chuckled, as if the money were not important. But Malka suspected that it was. How would she tell Dziga about their debt? Would he ever forgive her for spending more than they agreed upon?

Ingrid walked back to retrieve Malka’s dress, and Malka followed her, her eyes on Ingrid’s black belt.

“I’ll think of you tonight,” Ingrid said as she offered the dress to Malka. “Good luck.”

“Could you pack the dress in a box?” Malka said.

“In a box? Oh, Malka, what happened? I shouldn’t have prattled on about that wedding dress. Your eyes are red. What is it?”

“Just pack the dress in a box, please, so I can put it on a high shelf in the wardrobe. Out of sight.”

“Out of sight? But you’re going to wear it. Tonight.”

“I almost didn’t come here today. But then I thought…oh, I thought you were expecting me so I should come.”

“But what happened?”

“Do you know the words to My Country, ‘tis of Thee?” Malka asked. “Yossie says I don’t know the words. I know them.”

“Malka, of course you do. Now sit down and tell me what happened.”

“But what is a pilgrim’s pride? And a ‘tis of thee? I know the words, but what do they mean?”

“Sit down, Malka.” Ingrid put her arm around Malka’s waist and guided her to a chair, which skittered backwards when Malka slumped into it.

“America is impossible,” said Malka. “And English—I tried, I went to night school until the twins were born. Did he want me to care for two babies, one with the colic, and learn English at the same time? And he won’t say the she’ma.”

“The she’ma?”

“Oh, Ingrid. I just meant to come in here and pick up my dress. And to say thank you.” Ingrid’s image blurred through Malka’s tears. “And I mean it. Thank you for making this dress for me. You’ve been more than kind.”

“What happened? Why are you putting the dress on a high shelf out of sight?”

“I knit my own bloomers, like I did in Poland. They are soft and warm and I like to knit. But he says no one wears hand-knit bloomers and don’t I know that?”

“Malka, of course you do,” Ingrid said.

“And how did I find out about the award, he wants to know. And Dziga should not close his store. Dziga never closes the store and Yossie, he doesn’t understand what it means. And Gussie and Aaron, the twins, were going to come to the ceremony and I was going to wear my new dress. And now I can’t.”

“You can,” Ingrid said. “It’s ready for you. It’s beautiful, like a flower garden.”

“Can I help it that I was born in Poland?”

“Of course not,” Ingrid said.

“What’s the use of wearing my dress for nothing?”

“Malka, what happened?”

“He says if I come, if Dziga comes, he won’t go, and then he won’t get his award. So what’s the use?”

“He can’t do that to you, after I made you this dress.”

“In school, they are modern, he says, not like we are at home.”

“But if he sees you in the dress…”

“Should I stop knitting my own bloomers and take off my cap? And the she’ma, I say that prayer every night. It’s the watchword of our people and I learned it from my mother, said it with her, may her memory be for a blessing.”

“Things will change,” Ingrid said. “He doesn’t know.”

“I didn’t come across the ocean for this, not for this,” Malka said. “To have my own son ashamed.”

Ingrid put her arms around Malka, and Malka leaned against the pink shoulder and let herself cry. Ingrid rubbed her back.

“Shh, Malka,” Ingrid whispered as the wind rattled the windows of the shop. Ingrid’s empathy seeped into Malka. And although she was miserable, she was comforted. She raised her head and wiped her eyes with the back of her hands.

“So you’ll box up my dress, Ingrid?” Malka asked. “And I’ll set it on the top shelf.”

“Maybe you’ll wear it some time. Not tonight, but some time.”

“By the time I have a place to wear it, I’ll probably have grown too large. I do love sweets.” Malka half-smiled. “But it is a beautiful dress.” She heaved a sigh, and a shudder shook her as she realized that if given the chance, she could melt into tears all over again. She did not want to do that to Ingrid, in front of Ingrid. She would cry tonight while Yossie got his award without her.

“Ernie has tuberculosis.” Ingrid’s said.

Tuberculosis?” Malka said. They called it the white plague.

“He’s in a sanatorium in Wisconsin, taking the cure. Rest, fresh air and healthy diet, they say. But he’s all by himself and only nine years old. My brave boy, I imagine him coughing and tired and hot with fever. How I wish I could be with him.”

“You can’t be with him?”

“I can visit, just visit.  The doctors, they won’t let me live there. I can’t hug him in the middle of the night when he wakes up and his sheets are wet with sweat. I can’t read to him or hand him a glass of water. Oh how I miss him, my sweet, sweet baby.”

Now it was Malka’s turn to put her arms around Ingrid and whisper “Shh” and hope that the seamstress received comfort from the touch of a friend.

“I’m saving money so I can go visit him. The church is helping out.”

A pang of guilt and shame shot through Malka’s body.

“I can’t pay you for the dress yet, Ingrid,” she said, realizing that despite Ingrid’s desperate need for money, she made Malka the dress, the expensive one, the one Malka could not afford and now would never wear.

“I’ll pack up your dress. Now that we’ve both had a good cry.” Ingrid folded the yellow and green garment lengthwise into thirds and tucked the skirt under the bodice before placing it in a large box. Even in the box, the dress looked lovely, with its green ribbon and meticulous stitching. Ingrid tied a string around the box and handed it to Malka.

“You’ll get a chance to wear it someday. Think of me when you do.” she said. “Pretty as a picture you’ll be.”

“Ernie will get well.” Malka said. “Tonight, I’ll ask the Eternal One to give you strength. After I say the she’ma.” Malka would ask the Eternal One for strength for herself, too, strength to withstand her own hurt and to look beyond her own world. She took the dress from Ingrid and walked out the store. She had shopping to do, supper to fix, and a floor to mop. And, she needed to find out where the back entrance to the school auditorium was.

Tomorrow she would make rugelach, her best rugelach with plenty of dried cherries, walnuts and cinnamon, to share with Ingrid. She would bring it to the shop. She would bring a few pennies, too, find them somewhere.

In the distance, the mine whistle signaled a shift change, and Malka put her head down against the wind.