ME AND MY CLOTHES 1 Memories of my first communion dress
Every person needs clothes. Not just to protect his or her body from the weather but also as a means of self-expression. And just as the foods you eat, the songs you sing or listen to, the stories you read, the movies you see ….evoke memories, so it is with clothes. Just try to remember what you wore when you were younger…. and you will… no doubt about it…find yourself smiling and maybe crying a little at the same time.
My first ever clear memory of a dress that I wore is that of my first communion dress. It was the second time in my life that I wore all white. The first time was at my baptism, but understandably I was too young to remember that. As anyone born into a Christian family knows, the Sacrament of receiving one’s First Holy Communion is an important milestone in your personal faith formation. It is also a day to celebrate with family friends and in many places the local parish community. It is also customary for children receiving their First Holy Communion to wear white as a symbol of purity. This is absolutely no problem for the children concerned. However, in my home city of Mumbai, mothers of little boys have one constant lament that has not changed over the years — how to keep that special white suit remaining pristine white while getting to the church in the first place, then holding a lighted candle in hand during the fairly long ceremony and throughout the party that follows! On the other hand mothers of little girls are genuinely delighted to ensure that their daughters look like mini brides in all-white confections of lace, ruffles, satin, silk, organza, and tulle.
My mother like all mothers of little girls was excited to have a new dress sewed for me for my first communion. But she also had a practical concern. Me being an extremely skinny little girl she did not want my dress to look “over-done’’ ( her words) with too many ruffles and yards and yards of tulle.
So my mother took me to a locally well-known and respected Muslim tailor who was equally good at making western and Indian style clothes for both children and adults. My mother had wanted hand embroidery on my dress. But at that time hand embroidery on children's clothes ( the type which used thread stitches only without further embellishment of beads and sequins) seemed to be going out of fashion. It was being replaced by machine embroidery which was trending at that time. My mom chose the cut of the dress which was to be a low waisted bodice and a just-above-knee length gathered skirt. The sleeves were to be long and slightly puffed. The bodice had a kind of lattice effect embroidery. Near the wrist end of the sleeves and all along the gathered skirt was a floral scalloped ‘Broderie Anglaise’ style pattern. But all embroidered by machine. The fabric was a soft silky satin with a matt sheen to it and the machine embroidery was in a shinier white thread so that it stood out. The tailor in his enthusiasm to make the completed dress look extra special had sewn on by hand, white pearly droplet-shaped beads all over the bodice. My mom somehow did not like this at all. “ It’s too much! ” she declared and insisted that he remove the beads, much to his chagrin.! But he complied with my mom's request.
I am happy to say that after this initial hiccup, the tailor continued to stitch all my clothes, both western and Indian in style and keeping up to his reputation of paying attention also to the finer finishing details of each garment. And when I was more grown-up, he did embellish lace panels on dresses and kurtas with beads and sequins if I so desired. But I’ll never know why my mom did not hand embroider my first communion dress herself because she was good at embroidery.
Yes of course there was the customary net veil for my head. I also wore long white socks and ultra-comfortable white shoes with crepe soles. I did not wear a gold chain with a gold cross and gold bangles. My parents had both decided that it was too ostentatious for a child to wear gold, even though a lot of other girls did have real gold jewellery, for this special day. What I did have was a mini hand-crocheted white handbag — — a mini accessory to match the dress, for future use on any other special days. I did not use this bag on my first communion day though, because we all had to hold lit candles in our hands during the ceremony in church.
I was only 6 and a half years old and though the minimum age for receiving this sacrament was 7 years, the parish priest allowed a few of us who were slightly underage to receive the sacrament provided we had attended the few mandatory classes to learn about the significance of this sacrament, provided we could say our prayers without faltering and provided we could orally answer any questions that he asked of us to test our knowledge. I had the requisite speaking skills and being smaller than the rest in size I appeared smarter than I was! I also was chosen to be first in the girls line up for the procession that would enter solemnly into the church on that day. Together with my counterpart from the boys’ line, we were also given the honour to carry the ciborium with the hosts and the glass cruets with water and wine up to the altar at offertory time. Why we were handpicked for this I really will never know. But even as young as I was then, I kind of figured that this was an important honour bestowed on both of us. For there were altogether more than a hundred children receiving this sacrament in my parish church alone.
I remember the 8th of December — the feast of the Immaculate Conception — an important Marian feast in the Catholic liturgical calendar, was also the First Communion day for many parishes in the suburb, a practice which was continued for many years. In my parish church it was to begin at 8 am and so I had to get up very much earlier than that to have my breakfast (which had to be finished by 7 am, as there had to be a gap of at least an hour between the intake of any food or water and the receiving of the sacrament) and get dressed up for the day. I remember the anticipatory air of excitement of us assembled in the churchyard outside the main entrance door. The first communicant boys in white suits and the girls in beautiful white dresses….. our parents, siblings, fond grandparents and godparents all dressed in the best of their Sunday best. I can vaguely remember carrying the ciborium or cruets up to the parish priest at the altar at offertory time. I can still remember his name and his silver-bearded face and his generally stern disciplinarian manner. But sadly I cannot remember that milestone first moment of receiving the Holy Eucharist from his hands!
After the ceremony, we all went back to our respective homes. There definitely was a celebratory meal, all prepared at home by my mother who loved to cook for family events. But I don't recall whether it was lunch or dinner. I'm guessing it would have been dinner in most of our homes. Because we first communicants had also to receive another all-important Sacrament- the Sacrament of Confirmation — on the same day in the early evening. What I do remember was that tired out by the morning event and due to the hairpins tightly pinned onto my head to hold the veil and headdress in place, I developed a nasty headache and fell off to sleep on the sofa in the living room……. So when I was woken up in the middle of the afternoon to get ready one more time in all that finery to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation scheduled to begin at 4 pm, I threw a tantrum. And this I remember clearly (without the aid of any supporting video as this technology was non-existent at the time). I picked up a long cylindrical sofa cushion and thwacked my astonished maid and my even more astonished mom and I was crying and screaming, “I don't want to go to Church!”
Of course, I did not have any choice. And I had to go to Church where all of us first communicants received our Sacrament of Confirmation and the mandatory “slap on your cheek” which was in fact not a slap but a gentle tap on the cheek admonishing us for all the small sins we had supposedly committed in our innocent childhoods! This sacrament was administered by a bishop wearing his tall mitre, whose name I did not know. And still do not know.
My mom reminisced many times about this as I grew up. “ You were such a sweet, well-behaved cheerful child then …. as you are now…. and but that evening it looked like the devil had gotten into you!’’ And then she would immediately say “ Moral of the story….. however smart I thought you were for your age, six and a half years was just too young for a child to cope with so much on one day!’’
And it was only when I myself became the mother of a little girl, did I realize why my mom had hankered after the hand-embroidered look without further embellishment of pearly beads and sequins. It was because she wanted the dress to be a beautiful creation but still be simple and childlike.
So when I had to choose a pattern for my daughter’s first communion dress, my mother in law (who was even better at sewing and embroidery than my mom) articulated my mother's sentiments perfectly when she advised me to,
“ Choose something that looks more ‘ angel’ and less ‘mini-bride’!”