September 12: “Communion Dress” by Joyce Goldenstern

Good Monday, Story366! Tonight we all came pretty close to the Cubs, via Kyle Hendricks, no-hitting the Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Had that happened, well, I would have bragged about that a little, then I would have moved on to the story for today. Still, a one-hitter, win number 92 with 19 left to play. I feel good about the Cubs right now. More on this coming soon. Much more.

Anyway, moving on to the story for today. I read the first three pieces from Joyce Goldenstern’s collection The Story Ends—The Story Never Ends, out from ELJ Editions. Goldenstern is from Chicago, though I don’t know her from any of the circles I’ve run with there. This was my first endeavor into her work, but I’m glad I found her, because a lot of the themes she writes about hit home for me. The first story, “Heart, Etc.,” is a multi-generational piece about a woman, her mother, grandmother, aunt, and daughter, utilizing the 4-H motto as a jumping-off point for discussion. The second piece, “Heart and Arrow,” is about a couple working as pickers on a Delmonte farm until their relationship dissolves. The third story, “Communion Dress,” seemed most familiar. It’s about a little girl going to Catholic school, trying to be a little girl, facing the traditional Catholic school problems like nuns, nuns, and more nuns. I wasn’t a little girl, but everything else is pretty much on par with my life, thirty-five years ago, a kid at St. Andrew’s School in Calumet City.

“Communion Dress” is about Bernadette, a first-grader at St. Irene’s, a kid who, like all first graders, just wants to fit in, get through her days, be seven years old. Life is harder than that, though, as her mom and dad both have baggage, which weighs on Bernadette, manifesting itself in the form of extreme shyness. Some of that baggage includes her mom losing a breast to cancer and her father losing a leg to the war. They love the heck out of her, though, and that goes a long way to making things okay.

Eventually, Bernadette makes it to second grade, which is a big transition, as the nun is stricter, she has to learn cursive, and she will make her first confession and first Holy Communion. This leads to her family buying her the Communion dress from the title. The dress is hung in Bernadette’s closet, where she has to look at it, dream about it, for months on end. That leads to the little girl, who lives mostly in her head, to make a very distinct choice, one that brings about the story’s climax.

The details of “Communion Dress” really sell the story, especially for me, as everything here reminded me of going to Catholic school, living these exact same moments. There’s a Communion dress in my family that my older sisters all wore for their first Communion, a dress my nieces all wore for their first Communion, the same dress my great niece will wear in four years or so. Comparatively, there’s a navy blue Communion suit floating around somewhere, one that me, my three brothers, and all my nephews wore, a suit that has been around for over fifty years, but has been worn exactly ten times, on ten different days, by ten different little Czyzniejewskis. Since my sons aren’t Catholic, they won’t wear it (which kills my mother), but still, it awaits the next kid, somewhere, in a closet, in a plastic dry-cleaning bag, polyester and therefore indestructible.

Joyce Goldenstern has a pretty distinct style, disjointed narratives about memory, about nostalgia, about family. Told in past tense, from some future, more informed vantage points, there’s a sad yet loving feeling to her work. Her narrators, looking back, remember better times, worse times, and try to patch it all together to form some sort of meaning in their present lives. They’re good stories, well written, and I enjoyed reading them very much.