Little black dress

By Rosalie Tirella

Ma’s dress. photos: R.T.

Yesterday I found my late mom’s black dress and hung it up in my closet to get the wrinkles out. Ma wore this dress in one one of my favorite photographs of her – Ma sharing a laugh with her big sister Sue. It was in the early 1960s: Ma was about 34 years old and had just given birth to my sisters – identical twins who were born premature – “they were as big as the chickens at Supreme Market!” Ma used to like to say – and she needed help. The twins were just home from their extra long stay in the hospital, where they could grow bigger, stronger. Ma was worried. She was stressed: caring for newborn “preemies” and me, just around 2 years old…plus our demanding Polish grandmother Bapy, plus her useless, peripatetic husband – “Daddy” – who was hot tempered and angry at being made a father once again – he refused to support us financially. “GO TO WELFARE!” he’d scream at my mother, who never did because she had so much pride. The twins’ birth made Daddy mad enough to slap my mother’s pretty face after she had just gotten home with two tiny adorable babies! When my sisters and I were little kids Daddy would storm out of our tenement and not return for weeks. It was all just too much for him.

So big sis Sue came down to Lafayette Street in Green Island to lend Ma a hand and teach her how to care for three teeny ones with very little support from anybody. Ma did it all – and loved it. Babies and little kids were her metier… teaching them, dressing them, putting pink ribbons in our hair, letting us play with her costume jewelry and putting on her old Al Jolson records on Bapy’s Victrola – HALLELUJAH, I’M A BUM AGAIN! we’d sing along with Al, Ma smiling as she cooked her beef and potatoes over the stove.

Ma’s favorite mommy chore? Buying those sturdy little kids tie-up shoes at Lisbon’s Shoe Store on Millbury Street – with us kiddos there, standing on that special kiddie foot ruler that Mr. Lisbon used to measure our feet, looking up at Ma to explain what shoe size was best for us and explaining foot growth in children. Ma would listen intently, keenly interested, and then she’d buy those no-nonsense brown little shoes for the three of us. Three pairs of the the leather beauties. Expensive for Ma who worked at the dry cleaners down the street, but the shoes were excellent: had great support for growing feet, growing kids, who needed to walk straight and tall. Ma didn’t want us to have “fallen arches.” She wanted us to grow up with “good posture.”

Ma was fascinated with little kids on so many levels… how we learned to read and write and draw and paint. Often she’d jump in with her own drawings of little girls she’d just sketched on some drawing paper. She’d give them to us to color with our Crayolas – lying on the kitchen floor in the middle of all the domestic hub bub. Ma’s girls were always wearing dresses from the 1940s, with aprons, and they had round, apple cheeks. I’d color Ma’s drawings for her, which made her smile. Our very own little art project!

Ma was made for little children…but we were so much work! That’s why she swam in this black dress…and it’s a pretty small dress to begin with! The shoulders, look at them!


My mother had such small shoulders! Yet for years she carried the weight of the world on them!

My sweet mother …

Little Rose and her mom at Crompton Park, circa 1963