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  • We are invited to a dinner party at Edie's house.

    This is what I know about Edie: she is an avid horsewoman, she has a big horse farm, and she has a pilot's license. She is practical, farmy and earthy. Once she took my husband and my daughter for a ride in her Piper Cherokee from the tiny Bennington airport. She is older than I am and is interested in conserving her farm.

    At the dinner table with Edie and her siblings, the discussion is friendly but business-like. I mostly sit quietly and listen. They talk about land, estate planning, the fragile state of agriculture in Vermont, taxes, the future.

    I notice the wallpaper, the wine glasses, the way the silver glimmers and glints in the candlelight.

    In the living room after dinner, I ask Edie about the history of the brick farmhouse. It was built in 1805, fairly early for Vermont. The living room has a big stone fireplace, wood paneling, and shelves full of old leather-bound books. Because I do preservation work professionally, I ask about construction details, what remains in the attic and cellar.

    Edie offers to take me up to the attic to look at the rafters. I think she is glad to get away from the party.

    I, too, welcome the quiet moment.
  • The attic has been insulated and somewhat finished over, so there isn't all that much to see. I ask Edie if her family built this house, what it was like being at the end of a long line of occupants of this place.

    "Actually," she says, "I grew up on Park Avenue in New York."

    "What?" I am caught red-handed in my assumptions, having already started a mental journey down a road that doesn't exist.

    "Well, until I was 15. All I really wanted to do was ride horses and fly planes. We came up here in the summers with my grandparents. I convinced my parents that instead of going to boarding school, I could live with the neighbors and go to the local public school. I told them I'd take care of the horses here and ride every day. That lasted about a month, and then I moved into this house which had been closed up for the winter. I never went back to the neighbors' or to New York. I found a local fellow who taught me how to fly a plane. I got my pilot's license before I got my driver's license."

    I feel my perception shifting, readjusting, the way it does when you find out unexpected details.

    "Look over here, I want to show you something," she says. She leads me to a long row of quilted garment bags. She unzips a stiff zipper to reveal a rich collection of fabric. "These are my family's dresses, my grandmother's and great-grandmother's, my great aunt's, my aunt's." The bags are full of beautiful gowns, wedding dresses, evening dresses from different eras beginning in about 1840.

    I peek in, and marvel.

    She is proud.

    We head back down and rejoin the party which is winding down.
  • I think about those dresses in the attic from time-to-time over the next years.

    I think about the juxtaposition of her family background and the life Edie has shaped for herself. I think about the history she holds proudly, and how in its opposition to the world she has created it somehow sharpens who she is. I think about this every time I drive by the place.

    I wonder if I will ever get back up to the attic to see the dresses, to get a closer look at them, at Edie.
  • Two years later, Edie dies of a brain tumor.

    She is 57.

    It is tragic as all such deaths are.

    I hear that she undergoes an experimental treatment that at one point causes a near-death experience. Edie technically dies on the operating table, but she is resuscitated. After that, she isn’t afraid to die. She welcomes it, in fact. It is a peaceful place.
  • Her niece Callie and Callie's husband Jessie move into the house and take over the farm operations. My husband takes a liking to them, and my daughter sometimes babysits their one-year-old son. We are invited to another dinner party with a handful of their friends and Callie's parents who are visiting from Massachusetts.

    The house feels different. Some of the beautiful pieces of furniture are put away to make room for modern baby equipment. The stuff of life -- papers, laundry, shoes -- has piled up in the corners, but the underlying New England character of the old home is still present.

    The dinner conversation is lively and multi-generational -- young people, middle-aged people, older people. We are not confined to talk just about land conservation or family estate settlement. We meander through skiing, education, language, podcasts, wind power. I tell them the story of going up to the attic with Edie.

    Edie's sister Candace asks if I'd like to go up again. Yes, I say, yes.

    After dinner Callie, Candace and I go up while the others remain at the table, finishing off the wine.
  • This time, we take the dresses fully out of the garment bags and Candace gives us the background of each one.

    "That was my great-great grandmother's wedding dress. Great Aunt Lydia wore that to my parent's wedding. Here's a flapper dress from the 1920s that belonged to Aunt Frances. This one is the oldest, from the 1840s."

    Candace’s memory of details is remarkable. The dresses themselves are exquisite. Some are tiny. Some are big enough for us to try on. My favorite is the embroidered peacock wrap with fur trim, probably from the 1930s. Callie tries on the red Chinese robe from a late 19th century trip to the Far East. Candace holds up a plum colored traveling dress, then a two-piece parrot green damask suit with black trim.

    We are three girls playing dress-up. We are giggling. We are posing. The dresses go on-and-on: ivory lace gowns, blue velvet capes, brown silk robes, thin-waisted beaded dresses with whalebone stays.
  • That evening and over the next few days I think about the dresses and Edie. Aside from a red child’s dancing dress brought back from Mexico in the 1960s, there are no modern dresses in the collection. Where is the recent past? How does history just stop like that, and why do we care more about long ago than we do about yesterday? What will happen to Edie's story, her mark on that house, that place, these people?

    I think about missing links, about missing links that nobody knows are missing. I think about suggesting that Edie's show riding outfit be added to the collection: her breeches, her black jacket, her white pressed shirt, her polished tall boots. Or maybe her special flying outfit, if she had one. It would offer an explanation in part of how that all ended up there, on a dirt road in rural Vermont. It would continue the story behind the collection of dresses that seems today to have already ended. It would be a link to the next chapters with Callie and Jessie, and their little son.

    Later in the week, I ask my husband, "What else do you know about Edie?"

    "Nothing, really," he says. "Nothing more than you already know."
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