Nicky Clark's dream wedding gown once was white, but now is closer to ivory.
It has a lace bodice, a neckline edged with lace flowers, cap sleeves and a full tulle skirt.
It was her grandmother's first, in 1955, then her mother's, in 1983.
Nicky wasn't sure she would get to wear it, too.
The 28-year-old is 5-foot-7-inches, five inches taller than Grandma and four inches taller than Mom. She's slim, but not tiny like they were.
The first time Nicky tried it on, not long after her college sweetheart proposed, she couldn't zip it up.
But she couldn't imagine wearing anything else on her wedding day.
Nicky loves her mom, Sandy Kay Clark, and her grandma, Shirley Meehan. And they both love the dress, though their marriages ended: Her grandma got divorced, and Nicky's dad was killed in a motorcycle accident.
To Nicky, the dress isn't so much about those weddings, or about the marriages that followed.
It's about tradition, family and honoring two women she loves who love a dress.
So though the dress was too small — and yellowed, frayed and tattered — Nicky was firm that she would wear it down the aisle. She knew it would make a special day even better, and she was willing to do just about anything to restore the gown.
She knew it would be special to her grandma, who loved the dress so when she picked it out at Brandeis. She knew it would be special to her mom, who tried it on before her wedding only because she didn't have much money. Once she was in it, though, she fell in love.
“I called it the magical dress because it is,” said Sandy. “You feel like a princess in it.”
Nicky, who is more matter-of-fact than her mom, didn't care so much about feeling like a princess.
She cared about feeling close to her mom and grandma.
To Nicky, the women embody strength. Shirley lost two sons to car accidents, another to a suicide, and her son-in-law to a motorcycle crash. Sandy lost three brothers and a husband.
Both are warm and loving and thankful for the family they have. They're funny and fun-loving. Through everything, mom, daughter and granddaughter— and their extended family, too — have remained extremely tight-knit.
They're truly friends.
Nicky is Shirley's only granddaughter. When she was little, she often had sleepovers at grandma's house. Each year, they'd go together to Carroll, Iowa, to visit the graves of Shirley's parents — Nicky's great-grandparents. The two women go to movies together and they talk all the time. Nicky, a social worker, admires how compassionate her grandma is, how accepting.
“Age is the only thing that separates them,” said Nicky's new husband, Danny Seier. “I think if Shirley were 26 or Nicky were 78, they'd totally get each other.”
Nicky and Sandy took longer to become friends. They got into battles of wills when Nicky lived at home. But when she went off to college in Kearney, Nicky began to appreciate her mom's humor, her ability to make friends with anyone, her fun-loving nature (and her signature dance move involving a lot of arm movement, which Nicky sometimes mimics).
Sandy's love of a good time actually caused problems with the dress. When Nicky pulled it from the box in the basement, the skirt was torn, the sleeves ripped.
As she danced at her reception after her wedding to a neighbor boy, it didn't occur to Sandy that she might have a daughter who would want to wear the dress, too.
“I partied in it the whole night,” she said.
When Nicky tried on the torn, yellowed, too-small dress, her initial reaction was to cry.
But Shirley, Sandy and Nicky all tackle problems head on. They got to work.
Sandy had the dress dry-cleaned. The yellow faded, almost to the original white.
Nicky lost 20 pounds. The dress still didn't fit right, but she thought it might with alterations.
They looked for someone who could help, and found Lorraine Good, a seamstress with short hair and a big laugh who had been known as “the zipper queen” when she worked at a bridal shop. Now she does alterations out of her South Omaha apartment.
They'd seen another seamstress, but she had suggested entirely remaking the gown, changing the style in the process. Shirley wouldn't hear of that.
Lorraine proposed carefully tearing out side seams and inserting gussets — slim fabric panels that matched the original lace — giving Nicky room to breathe.
If that worked, Lorraine would see what she could do about the rest of the dress.
That sounded better to Shirley. It was her dress first, so she got the final say.
The women left it in Lorraine's care, hoping she could work a miracle.
Shirley knew the dress was hers as soon as she tried it on, at Brandeis, not long before her August 1955 wedding to LaRue Meehan.
“That was the place to get your dress,” she said. “That was the best bridal place in town.”
The bridal department was full of beautiful dresses. But the one with the lace bodice, cap sleeves and simple full tulle skirt stood out.
“It just fit really good,” Shirley said. “I don't think I tried on many dresses.”
She doesn't remember what her father paid for it, but she remembers thinking it was fancy and a bit indulgent. Shirley's wedding photos show a radiant 20-year-old in a perfectly fitting gown, a huge hoop skirt puffing up the tulle and highlighting Shirley's tiny waist. She paired it with lace gloves, a veil and a small bouquet of ribbons and flowers.
Shirley and LaRue went on to have eight kids. When Sandy, the fourth child, got engaged, her two older sisters encouraged her to try on her mom's dress. It was a bit small, and Sandy asked her mom if she could have it taken out.
Shirley said no. Lose five pounds, she told her daughter.
Sandy obeyed. She had the dress cleaned, but didn't do another thing to it. She wore a more modern veil, but she marveled at how well the dress had stood the test of time. She even wore the gloves.
“Thank goodness my mom had good taste,” she said.
As Sandy stood in the church with her father, about to walk down the aisle, her dad commented that he had walked that dress down the aisle once before. Despite the hard times he and Shirley had gone through, he, too, thought it was special that Sandy'd worn her mom's gown.
Sandy married David Clark. She'd known him since she was 8 years old; he was a good friend of her brother, Artie. After Artie died in the car accident, Sandy and David grew closer. Soon they started dating.
When she looks at the dress, she sees David standing next to it.
“He has touched this dress,” Sandy said. “We danced in this dress.”
Nicky, too, had thought of that. Her dad has been gone for three and a half years, but she wanted him there with her, as much as he could be.
She wanted all of her family to be there.
Her brothers, Ruben and Artie (named for his mother's brother and his father's friend), are in the military. They were both going to walk her down the aisle, but Ruben, who is stationed overseas, learned this fall that he couldn't make it home. Disappointed but ever upbeat, the Meehan-Clark clan made a bigger than life-sized cardboard cutout of Ruben. Sandy, who didn't want the ceremony to be silly, stipulated that cardboard Ruben not accompany Nicky down the aisle. He could, however, sit at the head table and pose for photographs.
Her family is big on tradition. Everyone would be there.
And Nicky hoped that everyone would include the dress.
In July, excited and a little nervous, the trio returned to Lorraine's.
I've been waiting for this, the seamstress said as she fluttered around her apartment before the women arrived.
It was difficult to tear out the seams without damaging the fragile old lace. But she did it without a single snag.
“I am so, so excited to see it on her,” Lorraine said.
She didn't doubt for a moment it would fit.
When Sandy, Shirley and Nicky arrived, Lorraine showed them what she had done. The women loved how well the new lace Nicky and Sandy had picked up at a fabric store for the side gussets matched the original gown. They oohed and ahhed over how pretty the gown looked hanging in Lorraine's cheerful, cluttered back bedroom-turned-studio.
Finally, Sandy said what everyone was thinking.
“Let's put it on.”
With her grandma, her mom and a seamstress who now was nearly as invested in the dress as she was, Nicky did as she was told.
And it fit well. Without her grandmother's huge hoop skirt, the length was perfect. It fit through the waist and shoulders.
“Oh, man, you are definitely a princess,” Sandy said.
But a slightly tattered princess.
The lace flowers along the neckline drooped. The sleeves were ripped and frayed. And the tears in the tulle from Sandy's wedding night dancing still were there, not too obvious, but noticeable if you looked closely.
Once again, the women left the dress with Lorraine.
And once again, Lorraine worked her magic.
She carefully removed the old lace sleeves and replaced them with nearly identical new ones. She used invisible thread to mend the tears in the skirt. She reinforced the droopy flowers with tulle. Nicky, Sandy and Shirley returned every couple of weeks to see the progress and offer suggestions.
In between, they attended to other wedding preparations. They made made bouquets of purple and white silk flowers for Nicky and her eight bridesmaids, who walked down the aisle in identical purple shift dresses. (Sandy had eight bridesmaids, too). They fashioned 55 wine bottles that family members had set aside for the wedding into centerpieces and made 3,000 purple, green and white cream cheese mints for more than 500 guests.
And finally the dress was done.
Sandy, who owns a beauty salon, did Nicky's hair for the final fitting. Nicky brought her wedding shoes and jewelry to Lorraine's and tried them on with the dress.
Nicky couldn't stop smiling. None of the women could.
It truly was like new, down to the original lace gloves that Lorraine had bleached and starched as a surprise.
Lorraine wouldn't accept any money for her work. It was too special, she said, and she felt honored to be able to help. After months of periodic fittings with Shirley, Sandy and Nicky, spoken goodbyes turned into hugs. Lorraine started going to Sandy's shop to get her hair done.
“Sandy and I hit it off,” she said. “We found out we're both Cancers.”
And on Friday night, at Holy Name Catholic Church, Nicky married Danny. He proposed to her with small diamond earrings instead of a ring (Nicky didn't want anything flashy) while sitting on their couch at home. It was perhaps not the most romantic proposal, Nicky said. But it was low-key and from the heart, and it felt just right.
Danny's family is close, too. He admires the bond Nicky has with her mom and grandma, and with her entire extended family.
And he fully approved of her dress.
Nicky and Danny had their reception in the church basement. Their families were there, of course, as were tons of friends and adopted family members, and photographs of the family members who were missing. Lorraine was there, too.
“She has become a friend,” Sandy said. “That's kind of what we do, though.”
Hundreds of friends and family members attended the reception. Guests admired the hundreds of family photos the couple had tacked to the pillars in the church basement. They laughed when Danny pulled Nicky into the reception hall in a Radio Flyer wagon. They listened to the speeches by Danny's best man and Nicky's matron of honor, both childhood friends who were almost family themselves. Before the dancing even started, the flowergirls found cardboard Ruben and carried him onto the dance floor.
And Nicky danced, too, just as her mom did at her reception, and her grandma did at hers. She felt like a princess, but she was careful with the dress.
She might someday have a daughter who wants to wear it, too.
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