Wedding dress bonds seven women across three generations

A teddy bear, held close every night, becomes a best friend. A golf ball, hit for a hole-in-one, turns into a triumph. And a wedding dress, worn seven times across three generations, becomes a treasure and a symbol of what matters most in life: each other.

Seven women, seven wedding days, one dress, with long lace sleeves, a full skirt and delicate buttons running down the back.

The gown has been taken in and let out. Stained and cleaned and stained again. It’s no longer made of just satin and lace — it is stitched now with stories, memories and prayers. It stands as a reminder to each woman who walks the aisle of how much she carries the others within her. She takes their lifeblood and their lessons. Their strengths, their failings.

The dress has come to hold a family code: “This is who we are, what we believe.” But even as a bride wears it, she is stepping away toward a life of her own and will have to decide how much of that code comes with her.

Regardless, just by slipping it on, she is tied to her mother, sisters, aunts and grandmother as never before. If she’s paying attention, she’ll feel the devotion among them and the pain they’ve caused one another — not on purpose, but out of the human imperfection that makes hurt as intrinsic as love in any close relationship.

But in the dress, she’ll understand why they went on loving, anyway.

***

Rita Paszkiewicz’s mother didn’t approve of her choice. In truth, Rita wasn’t always so sure about him, either.

She had been set up on a blind date with Bob Zgorski in October 1954. The second time they went out, he proclaimed they’d get married. “Well, I hope not too soon!” she responded.

But Bob meant what he said. And after a yearlong courtship, Rita continued to rebuff his entreaties to wed, so they broke up. “I couldn’t make up my mind,” she says.

A few months later, friends offered to send each of them out on another blind date. They arrived at the designated meeting point only to find each other. Friends persuaded them to give it another go, and within months, Bob and Rita were planning a wedding.

Rita’s mother had to be convinced. Her father, a businessman, liked Bob. Though the young man from Pennsylvania had only a junior-high education, he showed an entrepreneurial streak, opening a bike repair shop, then a service station. But he had been ill for much of his young life, until doctors finally repaired a damaged esophagus, and Rita’s mother worried about what her daughter would be in for.

“ ‘He’s not going to be well!’ ” she told Rita. But no one was ever good enough for her mother’s children, so Rita, strong-willed and in love, ignored the objections. Bob, 26, was kind and honest, with street smarts and a great sense of humor. A date was set for September 1956.

Rita fell in love with a gown she saw in a magazine, but none of the stores in town carried it. The owner of Judy’s Bridal Shop in Baltimore told her to bring in the photo and promised to make a replica.

It turned out just as Rita envisioned. At 21, she walked down the aisle of Sacred Heart of Mary Church in Baltimore. “I felt like a princess,” she remembers. “I loved it.” The couple were toasted with a home-cooked meal prepared by the church ladies at a nearby reception hall and sent on their way, with few thoughts of the life that was to come.

“At that point you don’t think like a real grown-up,” says Rita, now 77. “You don’t even begin to think of what could happen down the road. You’re just in love then, and you want to be married. You want to have a family.”

Perhaps she knew more than she realized. Soon after, Rita entered a contest that asked participants to describe the most important quality in a mate. Rita wrote about understanding: the ability to listen, comprehend and truly empathize with your spouse. She won first prize, a trip to Bermuda.

The couple would need plenty of understanding in the years to come. By 1963, they had five children younger than 6. Bob and Rita both grew up in large Catholic families and never considered anything else for themselves. They eventually had seven.

When their first child, Gary, was born, Bob thought he looked like he was hiding nuts in his cheeks; from then on, he was “Squirrel.” The next baby, Renee, looked like a peaceful lamb, so she became “Lambie.” Then came Kevin, called “Chip”; and Robyn; and Rhonda, dubbed “Kitten.” Rachelle made her arrival and was nicknamed “Bunny.” The baby, Roxanne, would go by “Dove.”

Rita was a master of organization. She was tireless and exacting — the table was always set beautifully, and the children were properly dressed. When the baby napped, Rita would hold “school” for the little ones, passing out workbooks and bagged lunches. Bob used the profits from his service station to open an auto parts store; at night Rita did the accounting.

Bob was industrious and fun-loving. He made time for Boy Scouts, fishing excursions and Sunday ski trips. He was sweet and sentimental, known for choking up whenever it was his turn to say grace.

Bob and Rita made their priorities abundantly clear to their children. They prized education, hard work, faith and commitment to family. Each child was enrolled in a single-sex Catholic school and expected to attend college. They would spend summers working in Bob’s business, which had grown to seven stores, and receive the same wages as any other employee. They would learn to put their trust in God. And they would watch out for each other, acting alternately as friend, protector, conscience or keeper.

Family was the foundation and focal point of life — and it was meant to be fun. The Zgorskis would sit together every night for dinner, passing each dish and waiting for Bob’s next joke. The seven kids shared a single bathroom, so it wasn’t uncommon for one to be in the shower while another sat on the toilet and a third brushed her teeth. Secrets weren’t easy to keep, and private time was far from sacred.

The kids accepted their parents’ marriage the same way they accepted the rising sun. It just was — and it wasn’t examined. It wasn’t until they got older that they were able to see its complexities and imperfections. And not until they had marriages of their own that they could comprehend the triumph of a union that lasted in spite of it all.

Perhaps it was at that same point that Bob and Rita realized their limits as parents. They could guide their children, but couldn’t live their lives for them. They could nurse their wounds, but not prevent the next heartache. They could never fully protect their kids — not from repeating old dramas, or experiencing new ones of their own.

***

No one who meets her today would believe it, but Lambie used to be a shy one.

Though headstrong like her mother, she was a wallflower in adolescence, never sure of herself. But when a recruiter persuaded her to attend Berry College in Georgia, she came alive in a way no one expected. “I found out that actually I am a leader,” she says.

She also found out how it felt to fall in love. Chris Renner was her opposite. He met her fiery drive with laid-back flexibility. “He wasn’t afraid of me, and he wasn’t afraid to let me be me,” she says.

After graduation, she told her parents she was staying in Georgia, where Chris was working at a lumber mill to save for optometry school. That Christmas, she announced she was engaged. Her parents seemed thrilled.

But they were nervous that it would fall to Lambie to support Chris through school. Months later, Rita asked Lambie to move home to plan the wedding. When Lambie arrived, her mother told her there wasn’t going to be a wedding. “Sorry, but there’s a lot to talk about here,” Lambie remembers Rita saying.

“I thought, ‘She’s marrying a stranger!’ ” Rita recalls. “And you know how my mother was? Well, I’ve got a little bit of that in me, too.”

Lambie’s heart sank. “Does she have my best interest at heart? Yes. But does she at some point in her life have to stop controlling mine? Yes,” she remembers thinking.

Lambie was angry and ready to marry in spite of her parents’ concerns, but Chris refused to elope. “You may think now that you are willing to walk away from your family and be estranged from them,” he said. “But I can see how important your family is in your life, and I can’t let you do it.”

Chris traveled to Baltimore and sat down across from Bob and Rita. “What would it take for us to get your blessing?” he asked. They laid down three requirements: that Chris own a house, that he be able to pay for school himself and that Lambie prove she can earn enough to support them.

By the next year, with a little help from his parents and student loans, Chris returned with their requirements fulfilled. Rita started planning the wedding.

Without much forethought, Lambie asked if she could wear her mother’s dress. “I don’t know if the turmoil to get to this point contributed to my wanting to wear the dress sort of as a peace offering,” she says. “I don’t feel like I was the one who needed to offer any peace, but maybe as a child who wants to please her mother and make her happy, I did.”

The morning of her wedding, in 1983, Lambie put on the dress and danced around the kitchen with her sisters singing “Chapel of Love.” The day was a dream. “It was the biggest celebration of life that you can imagine,” she says. “I think I struggled so hard to finally have this day — a day I was sure my mom was going to deny me — that when it really was there and everything did line up right and she really did agree, it was amazing.”

Rita eventually regretted not trusting her daughter’s judgment and now considers Chris “one of the most wonderful men I’ve ever met.”

Time brings that kind of perspective. It did for Lambie, who would one day come to know the dread that takes hold when a parent is certain that a beloved child, on the cusp of adulthood, is about to make a consequential mistake. And how much willpower is required to let her do it, anyway.

***

Bunny Zgorski wanted to be a woman of the world. Travel had never topped her parents’ agenda, but she was adventurous. She double-majored in international business and Spanish and became a sales executive for Nestlé, a company she thought might someday take her abroad.

But in 1989, friends set her up with a former competitive swimmer who worked in real estate. He was nice enough, so she agreed to a second date. He picked her up at her parents’ home, and when she sat down for breakfast the next morning, Rita declared: “You’re going to marry that guy!”

“No,” Bunny insisted. “I’m not going to marry him. His last name is Lamb. I will not be Bunny Lamb for life.”

But on the third date, they kissed under Fourth of July fireworks and something changed. “I just really, really liked him,” she says. “And I never looked back.”

Not quite two years later, she walked down the aisle in the dress her mother and sister had worn. “I felt very special. And I felt this connection to my parents,” she says. “I just remember having that feeling of ‘How lucky am I?’ ”

Greg wanted two kids; Bunny always imagined a large family like the one she grew up in. They settled on three. Rita’s knack for organization was magnified in Bunny, now a consultant in Potomac who helps families set up chore charts and filing systems.

And as her family grew, the former ambitious traveler found herself focused on home. “I could be a homebody and do things all with the kids and for the kids,” she says.

In contrast with Bob and Rita, who to this day rarely take long trips out of fear that one of their children or grandchildren will need them, Greg’s parents always valued travel and an active social life.

“Greg and I always say, ‘We need to be a balance.’ Because they’re both great parents in different kind of ways,” says Bunny, now 46. So they go on weekly dates as her in-laws do, and she stayed home to raise their kids as her own mother did.

***

There are certain traits all the Zgorski girls inherited from their mother. They are fast talkers and great hostesses. They laugh loudly and say things like, “Oh, my golly.” Above all, they’re doers: women who always have a project underway and are quick to help whomever is in need. Especially if it’s one of their own.

Kitten was the sensitive one who saw the world through rose-colored glasses. Even as a girl, she loved old people and babies, and couldn’t wait to become a wife and mother.

In the early 1990s, her younger sister Dovey said there was a man Kitten needed to meet. At first the new guy didn’t seem like a match, but somewhere along the way Kitten fell in love. They were engaged after a year.

Kitten, who now goes by Kitt, had never been happier than when she wore her mother’s dress on her wedding day in 1994. “You guys were just beaming,” she remembers people saying.

Their first son was born nine months to the day after their wedding. Not quite two years later, he had a brother, followed by two sweet little sisters. Life was the domestic tableau Kitt always wanted. She stayed home to care for the babies while her husband worked. The marriage wasn’t perfect, but they were happy. Or she was, anyway.

“I didn’t know my spouse as well as I thought I knew him,” she says now. After more than 15 years of marriage, she was served a separation agreement. “I almost had a heart attack,” she recalls. “This doesn’t happen in my family.”

Having watched her parents weather ups and downs, Kitt says she begged her husband to work through their issues. “I’d live through hell first before I’d go for a divorce and put my kids through that,” she says. But her husband could not be persuaded.

Filled with shame and fear, Kitt didn’t tell her family for a month. Finally, she told Robyn, and together they drove to see their parents. Everyone cried. Bob wanted to sit Kitt’s husband down man-to-man, to tell him he understood how tough things can get in a marriage — and how many blessings can come from sticking it out.

But it was too late; the divorce was proceeding. Even as her world seemed to crumble, Kitt’s sisters rallied around her, organizing outings and answering tearful late-night calls.

Kitt, who is 48 and lives in Severna Park, worries most about the impact the divorce will have on her children. “I don’t want them to grow up thinking, ‘Okay, I can just divorce.’ ”

She hopes that her parents and family will shape her children’s view on marriage and commitment. “It’s like there’s a big envelope around them,” she says. “Which makes me feel very good that they’ll know those important values.”

Sometimes her kids ask if she is sad when she thinks back to her wedding. “I tell them, ‘No, because number one, if I didn’t meet and marry Dad, I wouldn’t have you. And number two, it’s still one of the happiest days of my life.’ ”

Not for an instance has the turmoil shaken her faith in holy matrimony. “Marriage is such a treasure,” she says.

***

When Dovey Zgorski was in school, her siblings and their friends would carry her through the hallways. She was the baby of the family. Growing up in the shadows of four older sisters, she was never sure if people liked her for who she was or who she was related to.

At college that changed. No one at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh knew her as “one of the Zgorski girls.” She was just Dovey. “I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I have a personality. I am my own person,’ ” she recalls. “And I just had a ball.”

After college she moved closer to home and became a first-grade teacher. Since she had set Kitten up with her future husband, Kitten arranged a blind date for Dovey.

“I totally knew, the second I saw him, that we were going to get married,” she says of Chris Jett. “It was comfortable. You could see his soul when you looked in his eyes.”

Two years later, they were engaged. At 5-foot-1, she swam in the wedding dress when she first tried it on, but by the time she met Chris at the altar in 1996, it fit beautifully.

Within a few years, Dovey and Chris had a daughter, followed by three sons. Just as she had in college, she came alive in a new way as a mother.

“They’re just so much fun,” she says of the kids, who range from 6 to 13. But in truth, they’re fun because she’s fun. Above the kitchen table at their home in Ocean City, she painted “Happy Day Cafe.” Outside their bedrooms hangs a white board she updates daily with their schedules and a positive message: “Thank you for making the world a better place!”

Home is “a happy little place,” says Dovey, 42. And like her mother, she has made that place her family’s rock. If one of the children struggles at school or with friends, Dovey will say, “Look what you have here.” This is what matters, she tells them.

***

Robyn Zgorski’s three youn ersisters married before she did, but that never bothered her. She was busy: earning a doctorate, seeing the world, becoming a teacher, then a principal by the time she was in her early 30s.

She met Tip Clifton in an Annapolis bar the day of a cousin’s wedding shower. Tip and a couple of buddies made a game of shooting bottle caps onto Robyn’s wide-brimmed hat. He memorized her phone number and called the next day. Three dates later, they had their first kiss at the Jefferson Memorial after a wedding.

She was 35 when she headed to the altar wearing her mother’s gown in 1997, and 37 when she had her first child, a daughter. Soon, she and Tip had another daughter, then a son.

Of the five girls, she suspects she is most like their mother, sharing Rita’s high energy and her love of control. But Robyn pushes back against that intrinsic need to protect, not wanting it to limit her children’s ability to grow fully into themselves.

“Giving birth is the first piece of letting go,” she says. “And every day you have to let them go and let them go.”

Robyn, 50, thinks there are advantages to being an older parent and to having only three kids. At night, she lies in bed with her daughters and talks about life, about friendships and heartache and the meaning of it all. She has more wisdom to share than she would’ve had in her 20s, and more time to share it.

“We have such a neat relationship — and I really didn’t have that with my mom because she had seven kids,” Robyn says. “The things we talk about are so different than anything I talked about with my mom.”

And marriage has gotten better as the years went on: “I am far from the perfect wife, and he is far from the perfect husband. But we both know we’re there. We’re in it forever.”

***

After the trouble around Lambie’s wedding, she and Rita slowly repaired their relationship. But Lambie came away with “a little scar” on her heart and a resolve not to repeat her mother’s mistakes. That pledge would be tested.

In raising her own four children in Fairfax Station, Lambie found new admiration for Bob and Rita. Just as they had, Lambie sent her kids to Catholic schools and emphasized a strong work ethic and high expectations for achievement. In one significant way, however, she hoped to be a different kind of mother: She intended to stop parenting when her children were grown.

In her junior year of college, Lambie’s oldest, Ali, told her parents that she and her boyfriend were planning to travel through South America during summer break. Horrified, Lambie and her husband tried to dissuade her, but Ali was determined. Rita offered a possible solution: tell Ali they wouldn’t pay for the last year of college if she went.

“ ‘No, I’m not going to do it. I will not cut her off,’ ” Lambie, now 52, remembers saying. “So, Ali went on the trip. And we all lived through it.” But there were other challenges to come.

Ali was always a cautious child. Even as baby, she would stay on the periphery, watching other children play until she was sure it was safe to wade into the fray. Lambie sometimes wished that the teenage Ali would be more effervescent — until she realized she was missing the grace in a girl who is introspective and calm.

At the University of Virginia, Ali majored in religious studies and bioethics. In addition to her dad’s thoughtfulness and flexibility, she inherited her mother’s drive, a combination of assets that served her well as she launched a career in health-care policy.

While her friends were still having fun going out to bars every night, Ali was ready for the next phase of adulthood. So, almost three years ago, she followed the family tradition and accepted the offer to go on a blind date. Dinner turned into wine at the Jefferson Memorial and a walk to the Capitol. “We talked all night long,” she remembers.

G.P. Manson could debate politics and philosophy at length, but he also brought out Ali’s silly side, and her sweetness. “We’re stupid together,” she says. “And I hadn’t had that freedom to be totally myself in all those embarrassing ways before.”

A year and a half later, he proposed at the breakfast table in Del Ray.

When Ali and G.P. said they wanted to share an apartment after getting engaged, Lambie’s commitment to letting her children make their own decisions was overridden by her deeply held beliefs.

Lambie and Chris told Ali that if she and G.P. moved in together, there was no point in throwing the big wedding that was in the works. “The wedding is to celebrate that next phase of your life,” Lambie said. “So, if you’re going to be in that phase already, then what’s the party about? It seems like a farce.” The subject was dropped, and wedding planning continued.

Trickier still was the question of religion. Lambie never imagined anything for her daughter other than a Catholic family. But the compromise Ali and G.P. reached was to marry in the Church, baptize their future children and foster whatever natural curiosity might arise, but not raise them with the religious education Ali experienced.

“I think the best you can do is to set the best example and then to pray that if something is going to awaken — if it’s a true faith — that there’ll be some spark of that in the soul,” Ali says.

But Lambie believes faith is nourished by practice and instruction. “So, I’ve had to stop and say, ‘Oh, she is different,’ ” Lambie acknowledges. “She’s not going to have the same kind of Catholicism in her home as I did. Do I wish it were the other way? Yes. But am I disappointed for her? I’m not. Because I will certainly learn some things from her.”

***

For almost a decade, Ali was the only female grandchild in the family. So, she was drafted for service in all of her aunts’ weddings, either as a flower girl or junior bridesmaid. She watched each of them walk down the aisle in her grandmother’s dress and kept a photo from Bunny’s wedding day on her dresser for years.

Still, she never gave the gown much thought. It was beautiful, but seemed mostly like a memory. When Lambie asked what kind of dress she wanted to buy, Ali was surprised to hear herself saying, “Well, I guess I want to wear your dress.”

Lambie was stunned. After Robyn’s wedding, the dress had been shoved under Rita’s bed without even being cleaned — no one imagined it might be used again. When they pulled it out, the gown was yellowed and torn. Rita and Lambie helped Ali try it on. It was ill-fitting and unflattering, but the sight made her grandmother cry.

Lambie prayed Ali wouldn’t change her mind. In some way she thought that maybe this act — her daughter wearing her mother’s wedding dress — would say what words could never fully express.

“I know how much it would mean to [Rita]. And anything I can ever do to let her know that I really do appreciate her — even if we don’t always see eye to eye on things — is good,” Lambie says. “Because I want her to know that I love her.”

The gown was sent to an expert seamstress, who flattened the sleeves that a previous bride had puffed, and meticulously patched the lace. Ali found a simple sheath to wear for the reception and bought strappy gold shoes to go with both.

The sky was clear and the air was crisp for the wedding this April. Ali stood in her parents’ living room while Rita and Lambie latched each button of the 56-year-old dress. Ali winked at the flower girl, Robyn’s 9-year-old daughter, who watched intently from a corner.

All day, the house had been a frenzy of hair and makeup and bridesmaids. Just before it was time to leave, Lambie told her husband to turn on the music. “Chapel of Love” began to play. Dovey danced around the kitchen with her son. Robyn organized gift wrap, and Rita gave Ali a blessing. Kitt, Bunny and their broods were already en route to the church. Lambie leaned against the door frame and sighed. Her eyes filled with tears as she looked at her daughter, grown-up and gorgeous.

“It looks just right,” Ali said of the dress. “It looks like home. It looks like family.”

Ellen McCarthy writes the On Love column in Sunday Style. Her last stories for WP Magazine were on people who never found The One, why so many people divorce and the professor of pickups. To comment on this story, send e-mail to wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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Ellen McCarthy is a feature writer for Style.
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