Frances, second left and friends.
Its the end of the 1950s.
Perhaps she should get married? Maybe that would be a solution? Maybe that could be her future?
The red dress lay on the bed like an accusation, a reproach. Frances was deeply upset and confused. She walked restlessly around her bedroom.
Frances was now twenty six and the terrible years after the war were over. Wilhemina, her mother still needed to take washing in from other families in the village to make ends meet, and over the years all of her father´s carpentry tools had had to be sold, but the family had survived.
Frances has now worked for more than eight years in a hotel. She proved herself to be hardworking and reliable in the kitchen and serving at tables. She had of course learned to cook as a young girl from Wilhemina. But the boss, the daughter of the family who owned the hotel was pleased by her work and paid her well. And it was the boss who, when Frances had expressed a liking for the red dress, as they passed it in a shop in Münster, had come back later alone and bought it for her as a surprise gift.
Frances paused and looked at the dress again. She knew it was also a kind of invitation. The sister had a brother, ten years older than Frances, and Frances knew the whole family would like to welcome her properly into their family as his wife. He was a quiet retiring man who clearly liked her well enough. She felt grateful, which she felt she was supposed to feel, but also dismayed and angry as she couldn´t help wondering if in fact he really knew her at all.
She felt herself cornered somehow, held at bay, by the events of the last few months and of today. But there was no denying that she would not be a young person much longer and the decisions she would take soon would shape the rest of her life.
She wasn´t ashamed that she liked beautiful clothes. It didn´t mean she didn´t understand that many other things in life were much more important. For a moment she was back in the church where she had been that morning hearing the words of the Sister. She was not a child anymore. She had had no right to speak to her like that.
Frances wanted so much just to be able to turn the clock back. In the last few years, she´d had so much happiness, so much fun, just being young. She had a best friend, Edith. On long summer evenings in the garden, or on winter evenings in front of the fire, they had talked about everything, and, sometimes of course, too about the young men they had met.
Frances, left, and Edith.
Brought up Catholic, like Frances, and practicing too, they weren´t afraid though to have their own ideas and wanted to be open to the world. With Frances´ brother Hans, who ever since he had been an altar boy, was well known to all the local young women, and with his girlfriend Katrin, they made a happy group, travelling together to the cinema in Münster or going walking in the countryside.
Frances walked over to the window. It was Sunday. The street was empty. She wished again for the peace of mind that she had so often enjoyed on a Sunday afternoon. She went back and sat on the bed. On the other hand, it had not always been easy.
Katrin, Hans´ girlfriend was an old friend of the family. Because her mother had often been sick, Wilhemina had cooked for the children of both families. That Katrin, and her whole family were Protestants was never even mentioned. However, Frances could very clearly remember the day when the Parish Priest approached her.
“Good day, Frances.”
“Good day, Father.”
“Frances, you do know that Katrin is a protestant girl don´t you?”
“Of course, father, everyone in the village knows that.”
“Yes, indeed. Well, I have been wondering if perhaps we shouldn´t be keeping an eye on your brother Hans.”
“Is something the matter with him Father?”
“No, of course not, Frances. I mean it just looks like he´s courting Katrin, and obviously that wouldn´t be a good idea.”
Frances was quiet for a moment uncertain what she should say. And then she understood his meaning and it hit her like a slap in the face.
“You want me to spy on them, father, or to…to…tell them to stop.”
She was incredulous and the priest responded with greater vehemence.
“Its not about spying, Frances. Its about discouraging a relationship that could be a danger to Hans´ immortal soul. You must persuade him that this relationship does not have a future, which it does not.”
Frances replied calmly but clearly.
“Father, I would never do that.”
The priest was taken aback. But he was not the first and would certainly not be the last, to be disappointed in his belief, perhaps because she was a woman, or because she was small, so often smiling, or so obviously kind, or perhaps because she was all these things together, that she would be a person easily led to do the bidding of another.
As it became clear in the silence, that she had nothing else to add, he became angry.
“Then perhaps it would be best if you did not attend the youth meetings at the church anymore.”
And he walked quickly and angrily away.
For Frances that was just too much to ask., and if she wasn´t allowed at the church youth meetings then she wouldn´t go church or mass at all. Her friends, of course, supported her. But it wasn´t easy for her. She prayed and earnestly examined her own conscience. Was she mistaken? But in the end she came back to her belief that God did not love Katrin, just as he had not loved Hildegarde, any less than her or Hans, just because they were Protestants.
Frances, of course, couldn´t say that she knew God agreed with her. But she prayed every day and never felt estranged or distant from Him.
After some months the Parish Priest sought her out again and, without mentioning their disagreement asked her to come to church.
And now this! She touched the dress beside her. Wasn´t she happy to be a cook? Couldn´t she be happy to spend her life working in a hotel? In the end, after all, a poor young woman just didn´t have that many choices. She would have liked to be a teacher, but her family hadn´t had the money for her to train…she could be a nurse, or a seamstress…a Sister, perhaps…..or a cook.
How could a poor young woman find a way to be listened to and respected? Would she always be pushed to one side, left alone in an empty room before an empty street?
Frances and her girlfriends had been particularly looking forward to this Sunday. They had planned a bike ride together into the countryside as soon as Frances and Anna had come back from mass. And it was for that reason that Frances had had her red dress on that was perfect for bike rides.
It was a quite modern dress, maybe a little shorter than what she usually wore to church but it wasn´t indecent.
But as Frances and Anna took their places in church, Frances was to find that no consideration would be given for her good character or her intentions.
Just before the mass started the Priest sent a Sister to speak to Frances, and she announced in a voice that everyone in the packed church could hear:
“Frances, that just is not acceptable.”
“What do you mean, sister?” Frances was embarrassed and struggled not to feel defensive.
“I haven´t done anything wrong.”
“You know very well what I mean.” The Sister replied coldly.
The silence in the church was now complete. All eyes were on Frances.
She did know what the Sister meant. And she knew it was unfair. She felt herself cornered into silence. After all what could she reply in her defence that was suitable for a crowded church just before a mass?
“You must leave the church now.”
The Sister even waited for Frances to come out of her pew, and only ceased watching her after she had slowly walked, humiliated, to the church door and quietly closed it behind her.
The excursion was cancelled. Frances just wanted to be left alone. She went back to her room, took the dress off and laid it on the bed.
She looked again at the dress, as if should she just know how to make sense of what it meant to her, as if it held a kind of answer. The initial shock of what had happened in the church was now subsiding and she surprised herself in finding herself smiling, seeing the dress as the Sister saw it but still embracing what it meant to her, with the ridiculous brightness of its red, the carefree confidence of the deep cut at the neck. She still really liked it. It was simply perfect for warm summer days and for bike rides. And then He was there too, in her thoughts, the God she felt she knew; who was with her now and shared her joy when she rode her bike, heart racing, legs pounding, warmed by the sun and cooled by the wind.
She suddenly felt freed of her shame and her anxiety. It was clear to her now that they had never really belonged to her, nor to her red dress. She put the dress on again and left the house. This time she would not stay away from the church. She was, exactly as she was, the church. She went back into the chapel.
As she prayed, she felt accepted, at home, and knew that in a life with God there might be in the end little that she would have to forego.