For years, decades even, Mama Louise had been known for her beadwork. Every velvet bag, every fancy dress, every bridal gown in their small town had been hand-beaded by the old woman.
Her work was impeccable, of course. She still used silk and cotton thread when commercial beadwork had switched to synthetics, or even glue. She never seemed to measure, but the spacing between her beads, whether it was simple trim or an intricate pattern, was always precise. Not a millimeter offset. Not a fraction of a millimeter in error. And when she was asked how she created these items of wearable art, Louise would smile and answer, “Bead by bead.”
More than her actual work, however, was what Louise instilled in her work. Before making a bag, Mama Louise would ask where it would be used, and she would have the eventual owner talk about their hopes and dreams for the event. The purse would then seem to carry the faintest scent of the floral archways of a specific restaurant, or glitter with the starlight of an open-air theatre.
If she were beading a dress for a ball or party, Mama Louise would listen to the sort of music likely to be played and her old feet would tap out the rhythms as she worked. (Somehow, her arthritic knees and ankles never objected to such movement.) Later, the women who commissioned her work would share that their feet never seemed as light, their energy never seemed so strong. “I could have danced forever,” one woman shared, glowing with happiness and enthusiasm.
Bridal gowns had always been Mama Louise’s specialty. She limited her commissions to two a year and quoted a five-month turnaround. It was much longer than it took to have a custom gown from one of the bridal shops on Main Street, but her customers never objected. They knew that a dress from a store was just a dress, while a creation sewn by Louise would be a family heirloom.
For those gowns, Louise would ask for stories of the bride’s childhood. She would collect memories from her parents and friends, her cousins and sisters and partners in youthful crimes and misdemeanors (which is how she jestingly referred to youthful exploits). She would also ask that each woman provide a well-wish for the bride-to-be.
When the recipient of such a gown finally tried it on, it would be as if each memory was whispering to her, and when she walked down the aisle on her special day, to meet her partner at the end, she would feel the love of all the well-wishes wrapping itself around her, and sending her into a happy future.
With so many girls and women being connected to Mama Louise through her work, it was inevitable that someone would notice when the old woman began work on another piece. This dress wasn’t pure white, like a bridal gown, but buttery, like French vanilla.
“Who is this piece for?” her visitors would ask – for it wasn’t unusual for her clients to stop by with baked goods and have coffee or tea with Louise. “Is this a wedding dress?”
But Louise didn’t share the recipient’s name. Instead she would lead her guest down memory lane, collecting a story of when that person wore a Creation by Louise.
Bead by bead, this last dress was nearly finished, but work on it stopped suddenly, when Louise had a heart attack one night.
Her son was the one who found her. He was a quiet man. A concert violinist with elegant fingers. He could have done beadwork as fine as his mother’s but that wasn’t where his heart led him. An only child of an only child, he’d considered his mother’s clients to be the sisters, cousins, and aunties he’d never had.
“My mother,” he said, “never sewed for herself. But this dress… ” he choked up as he told the people who had gathered in the old woman’s apartment. “This dress was meant to be her burial gown. She knew, I think, that her time was running out.”
There were three days until the wake and the funeral. Three days to find a shop to finish the beadwork… except.
Except Vanessa, the owner of Mama Louise’s last wedding gown, came to sew on a few beads from her dress. And Caitlyn who had no fewer than six of Louise’s velvet handbags, brought three beads from each.
The contributions continued. Each of these former clients added pieces of their favorite dresses and purses to the last few rows of beads, laughing together at their uneven rows, sharing memories and stories as they worked.
They finished at midnight, the night before the wake, sitting back and sharing a collective sigh.
Somehow, the soft breeze that wafted through Louise’s living room didn’t surprise them. It just felt right. Similarly, the appearance of their friend and neighbor in her rocking chair, looking peaceful, if slightly transparent, was not scary, but somehow soothing.
“We finished your dress,” the women said. “We couldn’t come close to your talent… but we tried to do the work with love.”
“And so, you did,” the ghost of their beloved friend shared in a thin voice. “Bead by bead, you finished the gown. Bead by bead you strengthened your connections to each other and your community. Bead by bead, you spread love into the world.”
They wanted to hug her, but you can’t hug a ghost.
They wanted to share all their stories, but she was already fading.
Still, she held up an ethereal hand. “I know all your stories,” she said. “I know your hopes and dreams, and they will warm me in the next life. You’ve shared them with me… all of you… bead by bead.”