“Shame Is the Dress I Wear” by Maria Mazziotti Gillan

Maria Mazziotti Gillan


On the first day of school, my mother slips a dark blue
dress over my head, ties the starched sash. Zia Louisa and
Zio Guillermo have come down the back steps to our
apartment to see me setting off. They don’t have children

of their own and Zio Guillermo is my godfather, so they are
a big part of our lives. My mother has starched this cotton
dress handed down from Zia Christiana’s late in life
daughter, Zia Christiana who has enough money to buy

lots of pretty dresses for her red-headed daughter and also
throw chickens into the garbage that year when my father
was sick and couldn’t work so we lived on farina and
spaghetti. When my mother was dying, she talked about

seeing those discarded chickens and about being too
ashamed to ask for them. Anyway, I’m standing on that
wooden kitchen chair, my mother tugging at the dress,
my hair formed into sausage curls that my mother curled

by wrapping my thick dark hair in white rags, my eyes
enormous in my long, thin face. Zia Louisa stands back,
shakes her head and says, Why didn’t you get her a better
color? This dress that both my mother and I were proud of

until my aunt’s comment pointed out what should have
been obvious, that this dark blue color, perfect for a redhead
made my olive skin look jaundiced. I could almost
feel the starched skirt deflate. Sometimes I think that little

girl in her navy dress has followed me my whole life
through. There she is when I am at a party and I find a
chair to sit in and never move or when I am afraid to look
in a mirror to see what the years have done to me or when

I go to an Ivy League college to read and I meet the President
and his wife, so slim and Episcopalian, so upper class,
the whole place is jammed with faculty dressed in tweed
skirts and broadcloth white shirts and leather pumps

and shame is the dress I wear that day, shame and that little
girl, that shadow, is there her head hanging down as it did
then, her hands shaking.

from Rattle #29, Summer 2008


Maria Mazziotti Gillan: “I was invited to read at a small Ivy League college; looking around me I realized I was dressed all wrong … At that moment I remembered the dark navy dress I wore to first grade and I realized I have never stopped wearing that dress. When I write poetry, I want to go into the cave inside me where all those moments of shame and hurt wait, to see if I have the courage to enter that dark and scary place, and if these poems can heal what is broken inside me. If I write honestly about my shame, then I hope I give others permission to confront their own.” (web)

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