White wedding
Image by Lee Sandwith © 2011
Dress Memory16

The Reluctant Debutante

My dad was 34 when I was born; the same year, he built our house at the bottom of a hill amongst sprawling bushland. When I went home for his sixtieth birthday party a few years ago, he and Mum had finally moved up to the top of the hill.

It was strange to come home to a house that wasn’t mine. I was used to having my memories built up in one place, one on top of the other. So many layers. Our sandpit, which had become a long-jump pit and then a pet cemetery before it was turned into a pretty patch of petunias when my sister got married in our backyard.

But the new house was filled with all our old, familiar things. I was glad to see the long wooden table, where the six of us ate dinner every night before my sisters left home. Mum would clear the plates and then set up her sewing machine on it, tablecloths of fabric spread out waiting for her to transform them into beautiful dresses: straw into gold like Rumpelstiltskin.

I never had an old-fashioned debut like my sisters because my school took it away on grounds of political correctness. Instead, we had a presentation ball, where we could wear any colour dress we wanted. I was devastated because it didn’t seem anywhere near as grown-up or sophisticated.

I was a 16-year-old, foot-stamping, Scarlett O’Hara-type, a petulant child trying to be an adult. Mum indulged me. Across the wooden table she spread out some satin bedsheets, the colour of daffodils, and turned them into a magnificent, flouncy, strapless, Southern Belle ballgown. I loved wearing it but it was like playing dress-ups, not grown-ups.

How long does it take to come of age? I wore this silly, frothy, voluminous debutante dress I bought secondhand, to Dad’s sixtieth. No idea why.

So many layers.

The guests filled up the new house and overflowed out onto the neat apron of lawn. These were people who had known me as a child: distant relatives and former babysitters. I got sick of telling them that I wasn’t married, that I don’t have any children, and I sat at the kids’ table for the rest of the day.

Before I flew back to Melbourne, I drove past our old house, now crowded in by ugly developments. Daffodil yellow bulldozers were planted into the landscape to tear up the last of the trees.

I wanted to bawl like a baby or throw a tantrum like a toddler when I saw what had become of my childhood home, but like a proper adult I just looked straight ahead and drove past it.