She was in school in Washington, D.C., when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and she heeded the call to board a ship and land on more than one godforsaken island where she wore a starched white uniform and white hose regardless of 100-degree days and nights.
When the war was over, Mary came home to graduate school, becoming a supervisor of nurses, but the work did not warm her heart. She preferred tending to “her boys,” as she called them, helping them to heal.
She never married. My mother believed Mary’s big heart was emptied, her love and concern for injured sailors and Navy pilots pouring into their lives, leaving her single, but a mother of sorts, granted devotion in the form of letters from “her boys,” who kept in touch for years after the war.
When she came home from faraway places, there were celebrations in our family. Her cousins drove from south Georgia to reminisce at fish fries and long lunches, days when her sisters would fill the table with Mary’s favorite foods.
Her nieces and nephews crowded around her duffel bags like they were Aladdin’s cave, standing quietly as she doled out presents from exotic markets — small kimonos and geisha shoes on stilts, ivory fans and dolls.
For her two sisters, Mary brought folded packets of silk fabric, wrapped in paper. My mother kept those offerings in her sewing room closet, and, years later, when it fell to me to empty her house, I saved the silk because I knew my mother treasured it.
When we moved from Alabama to Georgia, the fabric came with me, still wrapped in old paper.
In March of this year, when rains felt like sleet, I opened one of the packages of silk.
Then, I made a deal with the gods of possibilities. If the silk was not pocked by age spots or faded, I would find someone who believed sewing is an art form and have a mother-of-the-groom dress made from the cloth for my son’s wedding in May.
Seventy years after the silk was brought home by Mary Brown, I unfolded it on a bed. It was a river of pale blues with small bouquets of woven berries scattered about.
There were no age spots and the silk had held its color. In the hands of a gifted molder of cloth, in two months’ time, it was transformed into a dress befitting the vagaries of age, a frock with long sleeves, a high neck and a skirt with pleats, moving with a swish when I walked.
I cried when I tried it on. The women in my family, none living long enough to see the dress, felt close at hand.
The day before his wedding, our son asked his father and me to step out of our pew as he and his bride knelt for the final prayer of their marriage ceremony. We stood behind him, our hands on his head, adding our blessing as he began his new life.
The bride’s mother and father stood with her and with us, our families meshing together. As I walked to the altar rail, I felt the Brown sisters with me, Aunt Mary, my mother and their sister, Lillian McNair, women who called on more strength than they knew they had through the losses and wounds of a long and terrible war.
After the wedding, I hung the dress in my closet, afraid to have it dry cleaned, fearing the decades-old fabric would vaporize.
There is one more packet of silk, black and embroidered. Its shelf life could reach a hundred years, I suppose, time for my granddaughters to make a deal with the gods of possibilities and decide on the fate of a gift from their great-great Aunt Mary.
Judy Elliott is an award-winning columnist from Marietta.