By Nan Leaptrott
Three brides, three portraits framed side by side for six decades where they’ve hung over the living room mantle. The celebrations and ritual of sitting for these bridal portraits began in 1889, occurred again in 1929 and for the last time in 1955. We are brides, gowned in different wedding dresses, each portrait showing distinct variations between us, yet reflecting we are an expression of each other.
The breathtaking beauty of a fresh spring morning surrounds Nina Alleen Elizabeth. The woods are spiked with dogwood blossoms and fragrant jasmine to welcome the birth of a new season after a raw and treacherous winter. Trudging through the woods is the stately stride of Wesley Thomas, the proprietor of the vast land, the man Nina Alleen Elizabeth will marry this year, the man whose beautiful estate will soon be her home.
Wesley Thomas’ house is large yet simple. Everywhere one looks there are small pine woods, hearty azaleas and camellias of all color distinction; the entrance is embraced by vast magnolia trees on each side of the long brick walk. The wrap-around porch with swings and rockers welcomes guests. Inside are rooms with walnut and tile fireplaces; a music room to the left of the grand entrance separates a butler’s pantry from the kitchen. A winding stairway positioned at the back edge of the front parlor leads family and guests up to a wide hall where all doors open into five sprawling bedrooms with sleeping porches off each.
Skilled in sewing, Nina Alleen Elizabeth chooses a corner room, with three long windows, so she can glance out at the perennial gardens below as she sews. In a tall chest of drawers she places her vintage lace ready for nimble fingers to etch doilies, collars, and trim. Soft skeins of yarn and large balls of wool are ready for someone to knit a shawl or crochet a bedspread; on shelves are pale patterned cloth, folded ready for young maidens and older women to create on the treadle sewing machine walking dresses. Another chest with small drawers built side by side hold buttons, mother of pearl, round and square shanks, spools of thread, a wooden darner to mend holes in socks. Nina Alleen Elizabeth is eager to host friends with an invitation to gather at will, to bring their sewing baskets, to spend the day, to chat about things they can’t discuss in front of their men folk.
May 15, 1889, Nina Alleen Elizabeth stands ready to greet her husband-to-be; her stomach quivers as Wesley Thomas approaches her in the garden. She greets him in a quiet, proper manner, her emotions, her smile not visible. Her responses carry on even as she steps into her carriage, travels a few miles to the center of town, to the lone hotel where a photographer is waiting. There, in a quiet corner, Nina Alleen Elizabeth poses for her wedding portrait.
My grandmother sits elegantly on a Victorian chair, gowned in the elaborate wedding dress she designed and hand-stitched, a cream-colored silk faille gown with a high-collared chiffon neckline. The fabric of artful folds, pleated tucks, mingles with a beaded skirt of Belgium lace, which accents her 17-inch waist. The leg of mutton sleeves swell into enormous puffs, tapering delicate lace down to her slender fingers. A single rose gracefully tied in ribbon is placed in her mounds of hair. She wears no smile; her bearing reflects rigidity, dignity; her calm demeanor suggests a confident resolution of satisfaction. Nina Alleen Elizabeth will soon be the bride of Wesley Thomas.
In 1929, 40 years later, the wedding portrait is a different story. Lakeside in South Carolina, during an icy season, where every breath becomes visible. Streets are quiet, no cars are on the road, only a few people stroll down the streets. All of them look like they’re in the fog of not knowing, waiting to hear any word of hope. No one shops, no one dances to the Charleston. Some stand in bread lines; others rummage around for work — any kind of work. The Great Depression is a reality, a harsh reality which causes Samuel David and Alleen Montez Elizabeth to wonder whether to postpone their wedding. But Alleen Montez Elizabeth has another plan.
David, look at this big house. This is now our home; we have room for your Papa, my Papa and Mamma, and other family members to live here with us. This is a perfect plan. We can take care of our parents, our family; it’s a place where we all can have a fresh start. Together we’ll pitch in, combine our resources. I will continue to teach, you will run the dairy farm, the others will take care of the house, the cooking and the gardens.
The decision is made to pull together, to draw strength from extended family, and now is the time for Alleen Montez Elizabeth to make plans to sit for her wedding portrait.
She stands in her garden in quiet elegance gowned in swirls of ivory satin flowing in deep lace flounces, in a gown she created. Her streaming veil graces to her head with orange blossoms, shimmers down her extremely long train, curling around her feet. She cradles a bouquet of orange blossoms, long stem cream roses, valley lilies tied with slender ribbon streamers that cascade down the front of her gown. The bouquet seems as tall as she is standing. Her smile, while subdued, reflects great poise and intellect. There is a contentment knowing she will soon be the bride of Samuel David.
In 1955, the mood swings. I, Nan Elizabeth, don my gingham blouse, gray and black poodle skirt, my brown and white Oxfords and white bobby socks. I’m ready to jitterbug with the new man on campus at a sock hop. During the summer courtship, we sit on the hood of his Chevrolet convertible drinking Pepsi-Cola at the drive-in watching “An Affair to Remember.” Life is easy. Love is in the air. Love at first sight seems impossible to some but not to Richard Benjamin and me.
By Valentine’s Day, there is splendor and hope. The church service is packed with people. Single candle tapers glow in each window. The music is majestic. Richard Benjamin and I leave in silence when an unexpected ring is placed on my finger. A wedding date is set, an appointment made to sit for a proper bridal portrait.
I, the bride, am ready, my dress already designed from a copy from the actress Leslie Caron wore in the movie “The Glass Slipper.” Color is the only difference between our two dresses: Leslie Caron’s dress is fashioned in shell pink, my dress is white.
My smile is as broad and high as my cheekbones. Gowned in yards of white tulle and lace, I reflect a woman full of promise and surprising shyness. In my hair is a seed pearl crown to support the full, tapering train. I hold gardenias, magnolias, lily of the valley and garnet pink roses.
Three women. Family. Three generations of brides framed side-by-side, hanging over a mantle for six decades. The fabric of our lives woven in joy, tied with knots of change, bound with golden threads of perseverance, braided together with faith in God and family. Three women, three brides framed side-by-side: grandmother, Nina Alleen Elizabeth, mother, Alleen Montez Elizabeth, and daughter, Nan Elizabeth. We are brides. We are a part of each other’s history, captured in the legacy of bridal portraits.