Mama and the Silver Comet

The sweet inspirational story of how a formal dress stopped a train dead in its tracks.

Posted in , Sep 1, 1992

Illustration: A young woman makes a call while an impatient saleswoman stews.

My 10-year-old granddaughter's mouth is a sudden O. "Nanny, can I try this dress on? I've never seen such a wonderful dress in my whole life!"

Jamie is spending the night, and she'd been looking through my clothes closet when she came upon the formal. That unforgettable dress!

As I help Jamie into it, I think back to the time I first tried it on...and to the time I started off to that special dance without it. How I had worried about that dress! 

Suddenly the memories come–easily, vividly, sweetly...

I'd recently started my first job in Atlanta and I often went home to Elberton, 100 miles east.

A few weeks earlier a hometown boy I'd been dating, Jerry West, who was attending Virginia Polytechnic Institute, had asked my mother, eyeball to eyeball, "Would you let Marion come up to V.P.I. for our big dance weekend? Fats Domino is going to be there. 

"I'd get her a nice room with a little lady who rents rooms. She could ride the Silver Comet."

I couldn't imagine my mother allowing me to do such a thing. It was 1957 and most young girls I knew didn't go off unchaperoned for a weekend. But I knew she liked Jerry.

Jerry waited, still looking right into Mama's eyes. I glanced back and forth apprehensively. Both of them smiled ever so slightly. 

"I don't see why not," Mama said. My mouth opened and Jerry lit up as if a light had gone on inside him. We went to the train station right then and got my ticket.

Mama wanted me to have a new formal. I'd worked as a secretary for a few months since I'd been out of college, but didn't have any extra money. She said I could select a dress and charge it to her. She assured me she'd have it paid for quickly.

Mama had worked at the Granite City Bank since my father died, when I was two. She managed her modest salary well. "Get something really pretty, Mannie," she added.

I'd planned to look all over Atlanta until I found the perfect dress. Unbelievably, I discovered it almost immediately on my lunch hour. I went to one of the finest stores in the city, a small, exclusive store I'd never been in before. There it was! My dress.

I stood mesmerized, not even hearing what the saleslady said to me in a nasal voice. She repeated, louder, "May I help you?"

Without taking my eyes off the dress, I said in hushed tones, "I want that dress."

It was on a mannequin. My colors: champagne, beige, rust and a darker beige...a taffeta top and the skirt–oh, the skirt was a dream come true: layers and layers of short, net ruffles so that it stood out majestically. And it was the popular short, ballerina length.

"Perhaps you'd like to look at other dresses. We have quite a nice selection in the back. Many are...reasonably priced," she suggested.

"No, that's my dress. I'll try it on."

She wasn't smiling when she announced, "It's over sixty dollars!"

Over sixty dollars! So much more than Mama and I had talked about. That was an enormous price back in 1957. But I was already in a relationship with the dress. I reached out and lightly touched a stiff net ruffle. "May I use your phone?"

"Local call?" She looked even more grim.

"No. I'll reverse the charge.

"Hello, Mama!" I'd reached her at work in Elberton. "I found the dress. But, Mama, it's...over sixty dollars!"

A pause. By standing on tiptoe I could still see the dress from the telephone.

"Marion, I want you to get the dress. You'll always remember this weekend. It's going to be...special."

"Mama, the saleslady thinks I should look at cheaper dresses," I said, lowering my voice.

"Let me speak to her, please."

I held the phone out to the small, unsmiling woman with her arms folded stiffly about her waist. "My mama wants to talk to you." She pulled off an enormous earring and put the phone to her ear. 

"Yes. Yes! Of course. Certainly, ma'am." The woman's entire countenance and voice changed. She was smiling. She hung the phone up and said in a new, soft voice, "Come right this way, Miss Bond. I'll help you into the dress.

"Your mother wants you to have long gloves. She's absolutely right, of course. The dress will be perfect with your auburn hair, dear." 

Even barefoot, I knew at last how Cinderella felt. It was all I could manage not to waltz over the plush carpet. Several customers stopped and smiled.

The saleslady stood with her hands clasped together, almost as though she were praying. Then she brought long ivory gloves that came up to my elbows. Mama had arranged for me to charge it all.

The next weekend I took the new dress home to Elberton for Mama to see. She loved it as much as I did. Then I returned to Atlanta to my job. Only one more week and my new dress and I would be on the Silver Comet.

I was back in my apartment in Atlanta when Mama called. When I heard her say, "Oh, Marion," I knew instantly. I could see the dress hanging on the back of her bedroom door in its clear zipped bag.

How could I have forgotten it? I was to board the Silver Comet in Atlanta on Friday and ride overnight to Virginia.

My heart tumbled to my feet. I had to work all week. So did Mama. How would I get my Cinderella dress for the ball?

"I'll stop the train, Marion," Mama said. She sounded confident. But how? The Silver Comet usually whizzed by my little hometown nightly, blowing its horn frantically at the crossing. "Don't worry," Mama urged me once again.

But I did worry–all week. Suppose we just sped through Elberton? That's what the train did when no one got on or off. How could I go to the big dance without my once-in-a-lifetime dress?

Then it was Friday. I was on the train speeding toward Elberton. Worrisome thoughts seemed to speed through my mind, over and over. After a while in the late afternoon sun I began to see sweetly familiar landmarks. My heart thumped loudly.

On the outskirts of town I recognized houses. And the giant oak tree. Then there were the granite sheds. They didn't look like much–tin buildings that appeared to be hurriedly thrown together, but beautiful cemetery markers were skillfully created in those sheds.

The granite–a rough marble-like rock–lay buried underneath many parts of Elberton. We were known as the Granite Center of the South. My heart suddenly felt like granite, heavy and cold. We were getting close to the train station. Can Mama really do it?

I sat on the very edge of my seat, biting my lip, trying to decide if the train was slowing down. No, the speed seemed to be steady. Maybe Mama had failed. I tried to imagine that the train was slowing down. Was it? Or was it simply my deep longing?

The scenes outside didn't seem to be passing by as rapidly. It was slowing down! Then the train screeched to a glorious halt.

I looked outside. There it was–the Elberton Depot. It had never looked so wonderful. The building was brick with a slanted roof and tong windows; it resembled the miniature depots that came with train sets. Suddenly everyone turned to stare. I did too. There was Mama!

She shot me a victorious I-told-you-so smile, as though she stopped trains all the time. Mama came down the aisle like the Queen of England, holding my dress up high. The porter helped her find a place to hang it. She gave me a quick, hard hug and hurried off the impatient train.

Not a word had been spoken. It was all a beautiful pantomime.

The train rumbled to life again. I pressed my face to the window and waved joyfully, gratefully as we continued on to Virginia that unforgettable evening. Mama stood waving back to me with both hands.

Now, standing there with Jamie as she tries on the dress, I tell her the story. I tell her about Mama's stopping the Silver Comet because she knew the weekend would be special. And it was. As it turned out, that weekend was the first time Jerry West and I talked of marriage.

"But Nanny," Jamie exclaims when I finish, "how did she stop the train?"

Oh, that! To tell the truth, until this moment I have never tried to find out; I've always enjoyed the mystery. Yet Jamie's question makes me wonder, so I telephone Mama.

There is a pause on the other end and I know Mama is thinking. Then she says, "Well, he's dead now; I suppose I can tell you. You see, Mr. Crisp, the depot agent at that time, was a lifelong friend of mine. So I told him about your dress and asked if he wouldn't stop the train.

"In small towns, Marion, people extend their friends...certain courtesies. You remember the verse: 'Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find...' It's true. So many times, all you have to do is ask."

For more, read Celebrating Mom: 7 Inspiring Stories about Mothers.

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