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Bonded From Wearing Grandma's Dresses
The first time I wore Grandmother Edna’s dresses, it was summer. I was about ten years old when we spent hours every day at the playhouse my father built—a small building in the backyard with green shingles on the roof and openings for windows Dad never finished.
My mother told me: “Here, go and play with Grandmother Edna’s dresses and her Votes for Women sashes.” I dug into the box. My brothers and younger sister weren’t all that interested in dressing up, so I had the cardboard box to myself with its musty-smelling thin fabric, lace, and flowing long skirts.
I marched in imaginary New York City suffrage parades and wrecked the dresses, tearing and dragging them through mud. They’d been stored since Grandmother Edna’s death in 1934—remaining unwashed after she wore them. The sensation of dressing up like Edna never left me. Throughout life I’ve always loved high collars, long skirts, petticoats, and broaches worn at the neckline.
BONDED THROUGH WEARING EDNA’S CLOTHES
When my grandmother’s clothes touched me, we bonded. I confided to Grandmother Edna Kearns in whispers, became convinced she worried about me and protected my secrets. My friends heard every story my mother told me about Edna’s horse-drawn wagon, the “Spirit of 1776,” how she wrote articles for New York City and Long Island newspapers, and marched in Votes for Women parades, especially the big one down in Washington, DC in 1913.
Edna’s archives fell into my hands in 1982. They’d been stored for years upstairs in my Aunt Serena’s closet. My mother and I sorted newspaper clippings and letters in an attempt to make sense of all this suffrage history. There were names of organizations I’d never heard of, plus events and speaking engagements spanning more than a decade from about 1911 through 1920.
GRASSROOTS ACTIVIST AT THE TURN OF THE 20TH CENTURY
Only years later did I recognize that Grandmother Edna's archive was one of a grassroots suffrage activist at the turn of the 20th century. And then it became much more than that. I learned about organizing for a cause as I sorted through Edna’s archives. Edna covered every inch of Long Island. In her free time, she participated in or organized events in New York City, such as a pageant at the Armory or being part of a suffrage program at the Metropolitan Opera. Though I’d never read Grandmother Edna’s writings all the years of storage in Aunt Serena’s closet, I was surprised to discover my own writing at the newspaper where I worked was almost identical in style to Edna’s. More than one person among my friends and family says I have Grandmother Edna in my DNA.
And it all began with playing dress-up.