A poem begins with a lump in your throat ~~ Robert Frost

THE YELLOW DRESS

The Yellow Dress 

                                  Atlanta, Georgia, October 1958

yellow-dress

I loved this dressy-dress

as I spun round and round

in the dressing-room mirror

of Rich’s Department Store –

swirling the skirt, checking it out,

front, back, side-to-side,

yellow chiffon, scooped neck,

puffed sleeves, starched crinolines

two-toned crisscrossed green sash.

On the store telephone my mother called

my father, an attorney in his office

a few blocks away, to come see the dress

and pay for it. He refused.

            It is too expensive for a sixteen-year-old girl.

 

Mother and I took the escalators

to the Rich’s fifth-floor executive offices

where Mimi, my grandfather,

pulled from his gold money clip

fifty dollars in new bills

— he always had crisp money—

and handed it to my mother.

***

The first time I wore the yellow dress

was for my installation as president

of The Temple Youth Group during

its fall membership party in the synagogue social hall—

a plain boxy room we’d decorated

with ribbons of colored crepe paper,

a banner reading “Let’s Break All Membership Records”

and black construction paper 45 RPM records,

names of current hits printed across them—

“All You Have to Do Is Dream,”

“Catch a Falling Star,” “The Purple People Eater.”

 

I felt pretty—really, really pretty.

***

Five hours after the Youth Group party ended,

while I lay asleep in my bedroom twenty miles away—

the yellow dress across a chair,

a trail of stockings and dyed-to-match

yellow shoes on the floor—

the synagogue of The Hebrew Benevolent Congregation

(known for generations in Atlanta simply as “The Temple” )

was bombed–

a gaping hole blasted

in the north side of the building

where just hours before we’d been dancing

to Elvis Presley, Perry Como,

and the Kingston Trio.

Long-time custodian Robert Benton,

arriving to open the building for Sunday School,

was the first to see

walls of religious school classrooms

and offices blown out,

stained-glass windows shattered,

dust and shards of elaborate

plaster friezes representing

the twelve tribes of Israel

scattered across the sanctuary pews and floor,

and construction paper 45 RPM records

strewn among broken brick and concrete.

***

Five men with histories of racist

and anti-Semitic associations

were arrested and indicted within a few days –

George Bright, Kenneth Griffin, Luther Corley,

brothers Robert and Richard Bolling—

indicted for setting off fifty sticks of dynamite

in the recessed side entry of The Temple—

dynamite supplied by J. B. Stoner,

founder and chairman of the National States Rights Party

who had conveniently left town before the bombing.

George Bright, a thirty-four-year-old cotton mill engineer,

the probable mastermind, was first to be tried –

represented by, among others, James R. Venable,

Imperial Wizard of the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

Bright’s first trial ended in a hung jury;

his second in an acquittal.

Discouraged prosecutors dropped charges

against the other men indicted

for bombing

the synagogue that my great-grandparents

had helped found in 1867,

the synagogue whose Rabbi, David Marx,

had married my grandparents,

the synagogue where my mother had been confirmed,

the congregation whose Rabbi, Jacob Rothschild,

was active in the Civil Rights Movement,

the congregation where I had just become

president of The Temple Youth Group.

***

Twenty years and dozens of loved dresses later,

I come across the yellow dress

on a wire hanger in a chifforobe

in my childhood room in my mother’s house.

I throw it across my arm, take it home,

hang it in the guest room closet.

Looking for extra pillows in the closet

one morning, I pull out the yellow dress,

hold it up against my body,

twirl round and round in front of the mirror.

I can feel the sideways sway of “slow dancing,”

the hand of a teenage boy at my waist.

I can hear the Platters singing “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

 

        ©Memory & Complicity, Mercer University Press 2018

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