Honouring Our Creative Selves

I found myself at a dinner party last night talking to two very creative men. One who has followed his artistic passion and developed an outstanding career in exterior car design. The other is a physician, whose personal passion lies in music and has submitted several of his songs to Melodifestivalen over the years. The conversation drew me back to my earliest passion and made me question, Where did that little girl go?

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From as early as I can remember, I was drawing floor plans. Not just a handful of floor plans, but reams and reams of floor plans. They were stuffed in draws and under the bed. I sat in front of the television drawing floor plans. I drew floor plans on rainy days at the cottage. Floor plans were part of my every day life at a ripe old age of eight or younger. I simply cannot remember. Paper was always needed and well used. I was building floor plans with books for my Barbies to live in, filling the basement floor, always changing the design. At eleven years old, I submitted my first project at school on architecture and started designing corporate building floor plans. In high school, I took drafting, a year-long project that culminated in my first completed house design, model and all and ready for building.

So what happened? I know that rowing dominated my time through my teens and early twenties and satisfied all of those worldly dreams that crept into my life the more I competed. I was hooked. I loved crossing the finish line first. Rowing was an addiction and I couldn’t get enough of it. Yet a little further past the finish line, beyond the stands and well into the forgotten banks down river, if I squinted just so, I could still see my little creative self cheering me on.

She’s still there, a little weathered perhaps from popping out of the reeds for visits over the years, but she’s there.

Through my career in teaching, I’ve always done my best to tap into my creative side in the hope of bringing out those unique nuances that make each student special. Despite the intrinsic rewards of helping to develop others’ creativity, a part of me yearned for more, to be true to that side of me that was born creative. I wanted no boundaries, or at least as few as possible. I wanted the vision that I’d dreamed of as a little architect in the making. I was a designer then. Looking back over the years, I realize I’ve always been one. I just wanted to be fully creative again. But did it have to be in designing buildings?

Our creative selves might manifest in unexpected ways throughout our careers and personal lives, but they need to be honoured and given a chance. It is creating something from nothing that can give us some of the greatest joy in life. Where would this world be without music and art after all? Whatever steers us in another direction, I believe a part of us will always want to find that forgotten or neglected path again. It will nag us until we do something about it. For those who wait until it is too late, I am certain regret is painful. I believe we need to listen to that little person we were once, tugging at our sleeve.

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At university, I wrote a children’s book on the side and showed one of my professors. Her words have never escaped me. “You should do something with this one day,” she said. It was her earnest expression that triggered something inside me. She was the first person to validate my writing apart from my high school German teacher who was apparently taken aback when I translated and illustrated The Night Before Christmas for fun. But alas, this story was my design, my creation and there was something remarkable in that realization—that I could write.

I had always enjoyed talking. Anyone who knows me knows this well. Then something grew in the sweet storytelling after I tucked my children in bed at night. I reveled in the stories. They would choose the characters and setting and I would create a story, every night for years, a different story for each of our two children. Soon that rolled into writing down stories on my own then reading those stories to them. Stories were coming out of the woodwork and the kids couldn’t get enough of them. I adore those memories. Now they’ve grown up, young adults in the making.

The designer in me is adjusting to those life changes as I write novels now, creating something again from nothing. Only that nothing is far from empty. I am one of the lucky ones to have grown creatively, even though I couldn’t see it fully at the time. It is through all of these life experiences that I have built a foundation on which to generate new stories. A close-knit family, friends, travel and education have all played a role in keeping that little creative me cheering from the riverbank.

I may not design houses for a living, but I’m finally giving my creative me a voice. I am a writer. I am a storyteller. It took me many years to believe that was true, many, many stories to believe in myself as a writer. I’m thrilled to be nearing the final leg of a new novel, at least the first draft. Honouring the commitment I made to writing this novel is precisely the reason I haven’t posted recently on my blog.  At first I felt guilty about that, until I not only saw how much more productive I had become, I felt better about myself and my work.

It’s not the end of the world if we acknowledge our creative selves later in life, having built a career in another field altogether. Once we do, though, once we let it out the gates, free to run as it will, be prepared for a never-ending journey, but one that feels right. If we don’t honour our creative selves, our lives become a series of short breaths. And don’t most of us really want to breathe deeply, and take in life to its fullest?

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Embracing a New Year as a Writer & On Again-off Again Expat

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Typically, a new year brings new resolutions to mind, good intentions but often with little follow-through. The way I approached the New Year, was to reflect on how 2015 unfolded. It was an exciting year of change with a recent move back to Sweden and my debut novel being released in the spring. There is always a honeymoon stage with any change I suspect, and certainly in my case this has proven true. No matter how many moves I make over the years, and there have been a few having lived in six countries, one might think I’d be used to it—the curiosity, the thrill of meeting new people, seeing places you never knew existed or maybe reacquainting yourself with old ties, friends, family. Perhaps the ironic joy in any change is not being used to it whatsoever and maybe that’s why we crave it. Why ironic? Because of the uphill battle to get there.

For the first time, I discovered how moving back to Sweden was very much like the process of releasing my first novel. All the legwork had to be done; applying to schools for my children, selling the house in the U.S., returning to our house in Sweden and finalizing everything with our tenants, banks, taxes, moving company, purchasing new cars, selling the old ones, reconnecting with my school, colleagues, friends and family. All of this while I was in the middle of the publication process with my publisher in the U.S.

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It wasn’t chaotic in any way, mind you, busy, but not chaotic. Each task was handled with care. In the case of my book, several months of editing back and forth with my editor then the production of the book and releasing the ARC (advanced reading/review copy) was thrilling, a tremendous amount of work, but thrilling.

So 2016 arrived. My book was released and we have settled into Swedish life once again. But have we? Or rather have I? Asking myself what worked and what did not, what has been challenging and rewarding and what has not, is important if I am to make 2016 a success, both personally and professionally.

It reminds me of the film, Finding Nemo, when the fish finally escape the dental office in a plastic bag filled with water. After the bag plunges into the sea then bobs on its surface, one fish says, “Now what?”

That’s me in a nutshell. The kids are settled into their schools, the house has been arranged, my husband is busy with work life and back in his familiar, the familiar ring of his own culture and language. Despite the familiarity I have with Sweden, having lived here for many years before our three-year stay in the U.S., it is not really my culture or my language. There is an empty crevice somewhere in all the pandemonium that I sometimes think only people who have lived abroad can understand. No matter how full your life is, it is always there.

My book having been released into the world garners a similar feeling. The hard work, the excitement, the recognition, but now I’m Finding Nemo, “Now what?” It’s been a fantastic learning experience without any doubt, but what worked and what didn’t? That is what I’ve needed to address.

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First and foremost, living in a foreign country that is not English has proven to be tremendously challenging as a debut author. Unless you are well known in the English market, it is very difficult to get exposure in Scandinavia. I had to learn this the hard way by spending countless hours writing emails, making phone calls, meeting bookshop owners and distributors, all in the hope of introducing my English book to a Scandinavian audience. In the process, my writing suffered because I dedicated too much energy and too much time to running up a very slippery slope, one with no end in sight. When I could have spent precious time writing, I spent it marketing. Of course, the latter is important but a book on the horizon is essential. Had I been in an English speaking country, I am as certain as I can be, that I would have garnered different results.

In any case, it was an important lesson learned. I had to ask myself what I wanted most. It was an easy answer. I wanted to write. As a result, I have chosen to arrange my day differently this year. Writing must be my top priority. Emails and social media come only after I’ve written my word quota for the day. As a writer, I need to wake up with my story filling all those wonderful crevices of my imagination. The moment I open an email or check to see how my book might be fairing on Amazon or Goodreads, my story loses a part of me. That’s something I am no longer willing to jeopardize. My story deserves my full attention. So if I have posted fewer blog posts lately, that is precisely the reason.

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Instead, I am spending time wisely, getting to know my new characters and developing a plot that keeps surprising me. I am new to social media and I am still learning how to write—how to write well, how to write creatively, how to write intelligently and with heart. I hope I never stop learning. I am reading more. I’m reading novels by authors who inspire me, like Kate Morton and Susan Meissner. I want to sink into a story and fall in love with the writing, and one day, I hope someone will feel that same way about something I’ve written.

If my reviews are any indication, I know my novel The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley has touched some readers in a way that I will always treasure. I am grateful for that. I am grateful for these changes in my life. Travel with my family remains a priority to me and I will likely jump at the opportunity to move house and home once again, somewhere sunny where my writing can flourish. 2016 is about setting goals, one of which is to complete my current writing project. Having made a plan for that to happen is key. It’s well under way and it feels great.

A new year brings new challenges to everyone. Embrace change in your life, make a plan and follow it through—writers are no exception, expats are no exception. As tough as it might be, it’s all a grand adventure. Is it not?

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Does Life Get Easier for Moms?

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I remember well the days of pandemonium with two small children and a busy career. I remember those older, wiser people around me patting my hand, “Don’t worry,” they’d say, “it will get easier, I promise.”

It’s only now that my children are in their teens that I realize it’s all a crock. Those same people ten years later tell me now not to worry—pat, pat—things will get easier once the children move out and go away to university. I’m quite sure that once they reach that stage of their lives, my older, wiser friends will then pat my hand once again, “wait until they settle down, then you can relax.”

It’s all a way to trick us moms into thinking that life will get easier, that our worries will subside once our children are grown adults. I believed that once, I think. During my early forties when I’d take mini breaks between play dates, planning birthday parties, taking the kids to swimming lessons, ballet, badminton, school functions, writing report cards, lesson planning, preparing dinner, cleaning the house… oh yes, and being a wife… to breathe, I actually believed that I’d become an expert. After all, they were my children (well, ours of course, my husband being an integral part of all this). But this post is about me, about being a mom, about being a wife, a teacher, a caregiver, a psychologist, a social worker, a chef (well, in my case, I tend to burn everything I cook). It was my career. It was my chaos—and I reveled in it. I loved the craziness. school_too_much_information_736405

Now I’m in my early fifties. I nearly choke as I write those words, mostly because I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean. I still haven’t grown up. I’m silly and immature in a truckload of ways, all the important ways I hope. I love to wrestle with my daughter and dance to One Direction. Yes, they’re cute. As my grandmother used to say, “I’m old dear, not blind.”

But my body aches in ways it never used to. Feels like each day brings a new ailment. I look in the mirror and hardly recognize myself. I see lines that never existed before. Those I don’t mind, but the sagging eyelids, please! Do you know what it’s like to put on eyeliner and have to stretch open your eyes, making sure not to blink until it dries, otherwise a streak of liner marks the lid making you look like an upside down gridiron American football player? I actually have to prop them up with my finger at times just to let the light in. Let’s not even mention the jowls developing. For the first time in my life, I can almost understand why someone would consider plastic surgery. Well, on second thought… What really amazes me for the first time in my life, is how I can exercise regularly and eat like a sparrow, yet not lose a single kilo. That’s just mean.
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The idea of teenage hormones multiplying in a household mixed with a fifty-something woman’s changing hormones. Well, let’s just say it’s not pretty. With a body changing and feeling all about me, me, me, feeling one minute like you want to explode, weep, or laugh for no apparent reason, a failing memory where you can’t remember what you said not two minutes ago and repeat yourself making you sound a hundred years older than you are, struggling to stay awake in the late afternoon because of incessant recent insomnia, and your first real life definition of incontinence haunting you when you break into song or laughter or sneezing fit, it’s no wonder a woman feels like she’s going mad.

No, none of it’s pretty. Let me tell you, teenagers have it easy in comparison!

Still we have to keep it all together. We can’t crumble for our children’s sake, for our husband’s sake, for our own sake. Our older friends are still there patting our hands, assuring us that “this too, will pass”. Well, guess what? It doesn’t help to hear that. I want to scream when I hear that. But I don’t. I smile instead or crinkle my brow hoping they’ll notice my bewilderment, How could you forget so easily? It must be like giving birth. You remember the pain but you tuck it away in your past, in a soft cushioned nook somewhere in your memory where it can’t bite you anymore.

That’s life, I’ve come to realize. It’s not that people don’t care. It’s that people are tangled up in their own lives, dealing with these same issues, the best they can at perhaps a different time than you. All it takes is one phone call or email from a close friend telling you that their life is changed forever because tragedy has struck or because their child is lying in a hospital bed over Christmas. Perspective sets in fast.

All your aches and droopy eyelids and muffin tops and needless worrying over changes in your body, the ones that come with growing old gracefully, evaporate as they rightfully should when that phone rings.

We are mothers.

We are wives.

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We are women who never stop thinking about the people we love and nurture even when we are struggling with something ourselves. But if all we have to worry about is the natural, everyday changes in our lives, and we still have a healthy, happy family, then we must let that soak in and appreciate how lucky we truly are.

I’m not convinced that things will ever get easy. We will always worry about our children, no matter how old they are. I am convinced though, that if we listen more, really listen to what our loved ones are experiencing then we’ll all be in a better place. Count our blessings. Take time to enjoy simply being together.

 

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A Simple Christmas Gesture

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So the Christmas rush has begun—a frenzy of buying, crowds and wrapping. I stood in a shop yesterday watching three men (very clearly fathers), standing in front of a rack of children’s bit and bobs. A haze grew around them as they stared blankly, automatons with “I don’t want to be here” written all over them. I had to leave. I couldn’t watch their pain for another moment.

As I drove away from the crowded parking lot, it made me think of what I yearn for every year during the holiday season—to have a simple, relaxing holiday with the people I love most in this world. Those thoughts rolled into the things that truly bring happiness to my life. Of course, family soars highest of all, way above the Earth’s atmosphere, making me dizzy at times with love and worry and joy and all those things that mothers and wives experience.

Just under that invisible shield circling our world is another layer. Yesterday that layer unfolded itself in all the kind, everyday gestures that people have done for me and I for them. Waving another driver into the queue made me giddy with happiness. For that tiny moment, I was beaming over such a simple gesture, but one that people appreciate. I know I do, when someone does the same for me. And it’s so easy, isn’t it? Easy just to be kind.

Yesterday, I woke up to a lovely message from a fellow writer, Caitlin Hicks, author of A Theory of Expanded Love, letting me know that my book, The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley, along with hers, was included in Judith Collins’ 50 Must Read Books of 2015. She wasn’t obligated to inform me, but that gesture made me smile and grateful to be part of a community, the writing community.

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When I see the tsunami of books flooding the market every day, it is easy to get overwhelmed, realizing you are just one of thousands of writers out there trying to find an audience. It is a ruthless industry but one with creative people at its core. Writers have this incredible innate desire, I believe, to be supportive of other writers. It might be a kind word, advice or actively participating in the development of another writer. We understand how grueling the process of writing is and how hard it is to be recognized for our efforts. So, when a kind hand reaches out to us, we take it. During the holiday season, when everyone is tripping over their To-Do lists, it means that much more when people are kind, and authors are no exception.

cover_frontI haven’t even met in person, Cecilia Lindblad, author of Och Sedan Aldrig Mer, here in Sweden, but through our husbands we connected and exchanged books. I received a lovely message from her recently offering her support within the Swedish market. It is remarkable to me when someone reaches out in such a way, giving what he/she can to help another person. Likewise, my constant supporter, Lille-Mor Arnäs, author of the children’s fantasy book series, Fyrklövern, is cheering me on, offering advice and inspiring words. She is an inspiration.

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There is a lovely sincerity that I feel from her and others in my community of writers. How can I not appreciate them during the holidays? They, along with my non-writer friends, give me that extra push when doubt floods me. Every writer suffers from doubt from time to time. It’s part of the package. In any case, when you find yourself in the shops this holiday or fighting your way through the crowds, pull back and remind yourself what is real, what is important. Is it important to fill every nook and cranny under the Christmas tree? Do something instead. Something kind. Something real. Something lovely.

Smile at a stranger. Let someone into the queue ahead of you. If you liked someone’s book, let him/her know. Nothing needs to be fluffy. A simple gesture of kindness might just make someone feel giddy. And oh, isn’t that a wonderful feeling?

Merry Christmas

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A Castle by the Sea

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In the wake of all that’s been happening in the world over the last week, the atrocities, the deluge of grief, anger and compassion, I was reminded yesterday of simpler times. I was reminded of the beauty that sits just down the road from me when my daughter asked us to go to Tjolöholms Julmarknad (Christmas market) at a nearby castle by Gothenburg’s archipelago.

As we strolled through the barns, I watched regular folk who had lovingly crafted their art; beautiful pendants made with glass, earrings and necklaces made from old silver cutlery, knitted garments, and baked goods made that morning. I watched little Swedish children scurry through the crowds, some crying because of this or that, some chasing their siblings, toddlers on their dad’s shoulders. Roasted almonds and cashews filled the air with sweetness outside where the frost was sparkling on the ground. IMG_8898

The old carriages that stood proud in another barn hooked me straight away. I imagined myself a hundred years ago stepping into one—stepping into history. For a writer, this is such a wonderful feeling. The seeds of a story get planted whether we want it or not.

Christmas lights festooned along the walkway toward the castle, and the cold breath puffing from our mouths as we weaved in and out of visitors, pulled us toward the grand castle that was once home to several distinguished families. A truly remarkable building.

Christmas music sounded in the air and people were happy. As I wandered the halls of Tjolöholm, I couldn’t help but imagine a child running through the corridor, playing hide and seek in days gone by. Petticoats and crinolines whooshed through my mind. I could almost touch them.

IMG_8932As we rounded the corner outside, heading toward the sea, the sunset met the arched bridge under which the carriages must have stopped all those years ago. It was magical.

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On our way out, we stopped in one of the barns for a little evening fika (snack), sipped on warm glögg (mulled wine), ate pepparkakor (gingerbread cookies) and Lussekatter (saffron bun) and always some julmust (Christmas pop), beloved by Swedes.

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Just three hours there, but it was enough to enchant me once again. It was enough to remind me that we need to enjoy simple moments. A grand castle perhaps, but what lay within its walls, was the ability to stir my mind into tiny stories that may one day make it into one of my books. It carried me into a time that I’ve always wanted to visit. It made me look at my family and appreciate a lovely Saturday outing with the people I love most in this world.

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A Time to Remember

When I was a child, I jokingly referred to Remembrance Day as the day to remember that the following day was my birthday. Even then, I really didn’t mean it. Even then, as a child, the poppy worn by everyone I knew, stood for something important. What was missing at the time, however, was a true understanding of it all. I knew it was to commemorate those who had died during the First World War and war thereafter, but how does a small child so far from war really understand?

img_2044 GrandpaI knew my grandfather had served in the British Army during World War II and was away from his family in Berkshire for the better part of six years. I listened to my grandmother’s stories of how he was stationed on Sicily and would return to England on leave only to have his two young sons hardly recognize him. I remember a faint giggle when my grandmother told me how my uncle, only a tot at the time, had stuck his tongue out at him, saying that he couldn’t tell him what to do, but how he was then quickly reprimanded.

It was only as I grew older that I realized how sad that was. Imagine not really knowing your own father then having him return from war expecting everything to function as it once did. My grandfather fought in something horrific, the most gentle, soft-spoken man I had ever known. How much my father-in-law today reminds me of him. Such a lovely reminder of a good man, yet a reminder that I know very little of what he went through during those war years. Did I ever really ask him? I don’t think so. An incredible source of family history as though sleeping in a tiny box that I never dared to open, I want to open it now. Only I can’t.  I had numerous opportunities to ask him as I grew into adulthood. But I didn’t. Then he died.

Here I am, a writer writing stories that take place during the world wars, The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley, WWII and my current novel taking place during both WWI and II. Had I known what my grandfather experienced, had I heard about it from his lips, I can’t help think how much richer my words would be. My grandfather’s brother, who lost both of his legs at eighteen years old in battle, has spent most of his life with prosthetics. It is incredible to think how such a traumatic event must have changed his life. Yet I have heard very little of his story, apart from the fact that he married his nurse, had a family and never once seemed to consider himself anything other than able-bodied and high-spirited.

When my brother told our family that he was planning on leaving his medical practice to join the Navy as a physician, it was a shock to say the least. Never once would any of us have thought he’d have a career in the military. It seemed so against his ideals, war, guns, violence—everything he stood against. But I was wrong. That’s the beauty of the Canadian military, those in the Commonwealth, and other countries like Sweden. They are peacekeepers first and foremost and I feel very proud of that. I feel proud that my brother’s role in the military is one of helping others and doing what’s morally right and humane. He wanted our support even though it was difficult to understand his choice at first. But we gave it. Through time, we were able to see how a career in the military made him happy. FullSizeRender soldier

I may not have opened that tiny box with my grandfather, a box that was no doubt overflowing with stories, good and bad, but I’ve been able to hear some of my brother’s stories. His time in Afghanistan was perhaps the most frightening for all of us back home, but he did a lot of good for the people of that country while he was there. He was able to reach remote villages to give medical care and advice to Afghans, some of whom had never even seen a toothbrush in their lives. He worked in some of the most extreme and perilous circumstances, but he earned his unit’s trust and loyalty and has built a successful career—a career that surprised us all.

So today is Remembrance Day. All the untold stories that will never make it into a book, all the stories that may have died in battle with those soldiers, yet on this day, we remember them—the soldiers of yesterday and today. “At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.”

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A Wedding Gown Passed Down

My mother in 1959

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This morning, I read a lovely post by Susan Meissner called, White Lace and Promises… It is a brief look at how wedding gowns have enchanted her—certainly enough to embody their spirit and make them stars in two of her novels, Blue Heart Blessed and Secrets of a Charmed Life. I have only read the latter (which I loved by the way), but I was swept up from the very start with Emmy’s romantic yet ambitious fascination for wedding dresses. It made perfect sense to me that a fifteen year old during the war would still see a great need for lace, charmeuse and organza despite more modest means of the time dictating practical dresses.

In any case, something caught my eye in Meissner’s post, something that resonated with me. She writes, “There is something magical and dream-like about a beautiful gown that is only meant to be worn once by the person to whom it belongs.” This made me think of my own wedding, the dress I wore seventeen years ago.

I was living in Norway, a beautiful but very expensive country. It was where my husband and I decided to begin our life together. Oddly perhaps, we wanted somewhere neutral—somewhere where neither of us had all that we knew and loved around us, primarily friends and family. This way, we would need to depend on each other and make new friends as a couple—a team effort if you will. My being Canadian and my husband Swedish, it was a practical yet enchanting idea.

My wedding dress and our choice of countries was perhaps the first time practicality nudged its way into my life in true Scandinavian form. So what does a girl do when she needs a wedding dress on the cheap? She calls mom! And there you have it. Albeit yellowed with age, a beautiful wedding gown only meant to be worn once on a hot summer’s day in 1959 by my mother.

In Meissner’s post, she treats us to a video of 100 Years of Wedding Gowns.  It’s fun to see how distinctly different the various designs are over the decades and how easy it is to spot the time period straight away.  On the other hand, there are those timeless gowns that can float from one decade to the next and still be as breathtaking as the first time it was worn.

My reasons may have been practical and economical at the time, but when I lifted my mother’s gown from the package sent to me across the Atlantic, the rustling of it dancing in my little flat, I was brought to tears. It took my breath away this piece of history draped in my arms. I loved that my mom saw it in a catalogue, Modern Bride, in 1959 and ordered it from New York City that same year. I love that she knew that that was The One, just like Emmy Downtree might have designed. CCE00000[2].jpgModern BrideI love that she kept that issue all these years.  I felt honoured to be able to add to her gown’s history and slip into something so beautiful and timeless. It made me feel close to my mom in a new way. It added something magical to my wedding day in a way that all the new dresses in the world couldn’t have given me.

Although, Susan Meissner added, “I most assuredly believe a wedding gown can be worn several times,” I believe referring to its sole owner, I wonder what she would think of a daughter walking down the aisle in the dress worn by her mother thirty-nine years earlier. Somehow, I think she might approve.

Thank you, Susan Meissner, for bringing this lovely memory to mind.

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If you have worn your mother’s wedding dress or your daughter has worn yours, I’d love to hear what it meant to you.