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The Unforgettable Dress
“Amelie, Monsieur Durand is coming today!” I glanced up, startled. My aunt was standing in the doorway, eyebrows raised. She crossed the room and glanced down at the coat on which I was supposed to be stitching buttons. “You’re only that far? Monsieur Durand wants his redingote en l?vite finished today.” She said it so urgently; I immediately picked up another button, and attempted to thread my needle.
“But Aunt Therese,” I began, trying to think of a reason I was so slow. “This coat needs so many buttons, it’s overwhelming!” I gestured toward the double breasted coat. It was rather extravagant looking, with three collars. “And why does Monsieur Durand need a coat like this in May?”
Aunt Therese sighed. “Perhaps he wants to look like the gentleman he is. It doesn’t matter why he wants it. You do want bread don’t you?”
I nodded. The Durands were the highest-paying customers that came to my aunt’s small seamstress shop. Since bread was so expensive, finishing an order for the Durands really paid off.
“Good then.” Aunt Therese said approvingly. “I want you to get those buttons on, then.” She turned and hurried back into the workroom of the shop.
I never sewed in the workroom. I would rather be in the front room where I could greet customers. Though I had only lived with Aunt Therese a few months, I knew most of the customers who came to the shop.
I was sewing the third-to-last button on the redingote en l?vite when Madame Durand breezed through the door.
“Oh, Amelie, there you are!” she exclaimed, as if she had searched all over Versailles before she had found me at my usual location, my aunt’s shop. I almost giggled, but stopped myself because that was impolite and disrespectful.
“Are you here to pick up Monsieur Durand’s redingote en l?vite?” I asked, sewing on the last button.
“Yes, dear. He would like to order another coat, en chenille. Of course I would like a dress, a polonaise.”
I almost groaned. I knew I would probably have to help with the polonaise, a very complicated-looking gown. Sewing was not among my talents. Back in the countryside, I had loved to help my mother bake, but if I wanted to go to school, I had to help Aunt Therese in her shop as well, Maman had told me. It was quite miserable when school was not in session, but Aunt Therese rewarded me with free time everyday, of course.
“Ah, yes, Madame. Come back to pick them up in about three weeks. And don’t forget your husband’s coat,” I quickly wrapped up the coat and handed it to Madame Durand.
“Thank you, darling,” she said, handing me the amount she owed us. She waved to my aunt who had come out of the workroom as she exited.
“A polonaise, I suppose we should start that right away, don’t you?” she asked.
“Oh, Aunt Therese, I’ve been cooped up in this steamy shop all day! Can’t I go to market for you? We have the money to buy bread.” I held up the small bag Madame Durand had given me.
Aunt Therese sighed and nodded. “I suppose I should start the coat first, then.” She disappeared back into her workroom and I was free. The bell tinkled when I left. The bell by the door tinkled whenever someone came in and out. It was a signal to Aunt Therese if a customer came when she was in the workroom.
I wandered to the market, a basket on my arm. I expertly navigated my way through crowds of people, mainly commoners and servants, to the bread stand. I ordered the three loaves of bread, very small loaves due to the poor grain harvests in the past decade.
I heard some women gossiping about the Estates-General that would be held tomorrow, on May 5th. One of them turned, and I recognized her as Madame Fontaine, my friend Mathieu’s mother. Madame Fontaine was wearing a simple cotton dress which was dark blue. It was trimmed with lace, and I remembered sewing that lace onto that same dress. I grimaced at the thought, though it wasn’t as bad as making a polonaise. In her arms was Emilia, the youngest Fontaine child. I considered going up to them, but instead I decided to find Mathieu first.
“Amelie!” I turned to see Mathieu jogging over to me, his little sister Elisamarie following as usual. Elisamarie was nine, and I knew she wanted to be able to do everything her twelve-year-old brother could.
“Hello, Amelie. Are you shopping for your aunt?” Mathieu asked.
“Yes, I didn’t want to sew a polonaise after spending all morning sewing buttons on a rendingote en l?vite.” I explained. Mathieu furrowed his eyebrows.
“You were sewing buttons on a…what?” he asked.
“A rendingote en l?vite, Mathieu, what else?” Elisamarie said, addressing her brother in an exasperated tone. She turned to me. “Amelie, what is a rendingote en l?vite anyway?”
Mathieu snorted, but I glared at him because he didn’t know what it was either.
“A rendingote en l?vite,” I told them, “is a fancy coat. A very fancy coat. The one Aunt Therese and I made had three collars and sixteen buttons.” Elisamarie raised her eyebrows.
“Who needs three collars?” she asked. I shrugged.
“Monsieur Durand, apparently.”
The conversation was cut short when Madame Fontaine announced that Mathieu and Elisamarie had to go home and catch up on their studies. I continued on to get some vegetables for Aunt Therese.
Aunt Therese looked up when the bell tinkled. She was at the desk talking with Mademoiselle Marion, another client of hers. I held up the basket and headed upstairs.
Above the shop is Aunt Therese’s home. There is a kitchen, and two bedrooms. I set the basket on the table, and dutifully went to help Aunt Therese.
Later that night, Aunt Therese and I were eating dinner in the small kitchen above the shop.
“Amelie,” Aunt Therese began, smiling. “I received a letter from your parents today, and we have arranged that you will be going back to the countryside until school is in session again. You leave tomorrow.”
I rode to the countryside in a carriage. It looked like a very expensive carriage, but Mademoiselle Marion had let me ride in it as long as she could be my travel partner. Her pink polonaise gown had swished when she had been helped up into the seat by the driver. She talked my ear off the whole way, and I was relieved when our cottage came into view. I thanked Mademoiselle Marion, and hopped out without waiting for the driver. Maman was in the doorway, wearing the cream-colored dress I had always loved on her. She was holding baby Lilly, who was now six months old. I hugged them both right away.
“Where is Papa?” I asked, glancing around.
“Out in the fields. He promised he would come back for dinner, so he should be along any minute now.” Maman explained.
I was happy to see my family again, and the days flew by. I celebrated my twelfth birthday in June, and Aunt Therese sent me a letter every week. Sometimes it was about the clients, like how much Madame Durand and loved her polonaise dress, and sometimes it was about the drama going on with the Estates-General and how the third estate had renamed themselves The National Assembly. I was proud of the National Assembly. However, the Estates-General didn’t really solve anything, and on July 14th angered Parisians stormed the Bastille prison.
Many peasants in the countryside began revolting against their lords. It was sort of uneventful here, however, since most of the tenant farmers like our lord and didn’t want to drive him away.
We received a package from Aunt Therese. Lilly had been the one to discover it. The messenger had left it on the step when Maman was at market, and Papa was over at the Moire farm. The messenger had knocked so lightly, that I hadn’t heard, though I was in the front room at the time. Lilly had heard, and had crawled to the door, talking rapidly in Lilly-language. When I brought the parcel inside, Lilly laughed with glee and let loose another steam of baby words.
Aunt Therese had sewed two dresses, a lavender one for me, and a floral-patterned one for Lilly. Both were simple cotton shift dresses, and we loved them.
Maman did not want me to return to Versailles that August, what with all the revolts going on, and Versailles of course, was the home of the king. Instead, she invited Aunt Therese to come live with us.
Aunt Therese seemed all too glad to leave Versailles. She had lost many customers, including the Durands, who had fled the country. That was sad to hear, because I had been fond of the Durands, and they had been fond of me. Mademoiselle Marion had married and gone to Paris with her husband.
“What of Mathieu and Elisamarie?” I asked. Aunt Therese was settled in our rocker, dressed in her usual black cotton dress. She held Lilly on her lap, stroking Lilly’s soft blond hair.
“As far as I know, the Fontaines are still in Versailles.” Perhaps you should write them a letter.”
I nodded, picking up a pen to begin my letter. Perhaps Mathieu’s summer had been more interesting than mine, but that didn’t matter. I picked up a pen and began to write.
“My goodness, Amelie, you made that out of cotton scraps?” Mathieu asked. The Fontaines had moved from the city to the old Moire farm, and I was glad to have my best friend a half-mile down the road.
It was a cold December day, and we were standing in the front room of my family’s cottage, with the fire crackling. “But I thought you were horrible at sewing!”
“That’s what I used to think.” I said smiling proudly at my creation. Aunt Therese had appeared in the doorway.
“Didn’t she do a good job, Mathieu?” she inquired.
“Oh, she did, Madame Blanchett, but what did you make, Amelie?” Mathieu replied.
“Why it’s a patchwork polonaise dress, of course.” I replied.
My patchwork polonaise dress wasn’t the prettiest, but it reminded me of Madame Durand, Aunt Therese’s little shop, and that May in Versailles. That May was one I didn’t want to forget.