PAWTUCKET—Every woman dreams of finding the perfect dress for her wedding day. For bride-to-be Beth Coakley, that means taking her turn in the same satin and lace gown that has been worn by seven other family members before her.
When Coakley, a school teacher in Beverly, Mass., marries Pawtucket native Bob Bedard this fall, she will be proudly outfitted in a family heirloom known as “the corn crop dress.” The gown was first worn by Coakley's great-aunt when she wed in 1949, and was passed down to a bride in every generation after that, from the 1950s to the 1990s.
“Family legend is that my great-grandparents lived on a working farm and had a great crop of corn in the fall of 1948,” said Coakley. “That provided the $300 for the purchase of the dress for my great aunt's wedding in June of 1949.”
“I remember when my sister and I realized that there had been a wedding every decade,” Coakley said. “Great aunt Mary in the '40s, great aunt Dorothy in the '50s, aunt Jan in the '60s, our mother and aunt Barb in the '70s, cousin Barb in the '80s and cousin Beverly in the '90s.” She added, “We were hoping that one of us might be able to wear the dress sometime between 2000 and 2010, but it didn't quite work out that way.”
Bob Bedard, a 53-year-old Tolman graduate who works as a custodian at Slater Junior High School, met Coakley when she was a newly hired teacher there. She worked at Slater for six years and is currently an assistant department head at the Landmark School in Beverly, Mass. The couple has been dating for five years and this is the first marriage for both, he said.
Coakley, 37, said that when Bedard proposed, she never considered shopping for any other wedding gown. “I always hoped that I would have a chance to wear the dress. It's the second most important part of my wedding—the first, of course, is a wonderful and loving husband.”
For his part, Bedard says he is more than fine with his fiancee's choice to be another “corn crop” bride. In fact, he thinks it's a nice family tradition. While he has been involved in the planning for the big day, when it comes to the gown, Bedard says, “It's her wedding. It's whatever she wants to do.”
Bedard added that he is just looking forward to Coakley becoming his wife. “I couldn't get anyone better than her. She's the best,” he said. “I'm not an emotional guy, but I'm starting to get emotional about the wedding.”
Coakley remarked that while most brides-to-be have women in their family who offer fashion advice, that doesn't come into play with “the corn crop dress.” The seven brides before her all wore the dress as it was originally styled on their wedding days. They also wore the same veil and type of shoes.
The last bride to wear the corn crop dress, Coakley's mother's cousin Beverly, did replace the original collar, and sent Coakley the extra pieces of lace. She said she plans to use them as part of the “birdcage veil” that she will wear with her gown.
Coakley also noted that at 6-feet, she is the tallest bride in the family. As most of the other brides stood at about 5'8”, she was a little nervous that the heirloom dress wouldn't fit. She was given “strict instructions” not to have the gown permanently altered, and said it would be impossible to match the vintage fabric anyway.
However, Coakley said that when her mother helped her try the dress on, she remarked, “It looks like it was made for you!” She added, “I think it is as meaningful for her to see me married in the dress as it is for me to know that she wore it before me.”
Coakley said that as she plans her wedding, she feels sadness that her great aunt Dorothy, the second of the “corn crop brides,” has passed away. She is also sad that her great aunt Mary, the original owner of the dress, is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. “She probably doesn't even know that another great-niece has asked to borrow her gown,” she lamented.
Coakley said there is a photograph, taken in 1999 at a different cousin's wedding, of all seven of the brides. “They are so beautiful in their youth and their old age, with their strong family resemblance,” she remarked.
“We are never going to be able to have all the brides together again; someone will always be missing. But at the same time, we will all be together in spirit and memory. I am honored to be joining them, Coakley stated.
The latest bride-to-be, who will be making her home in Pawtucket after the wedding, also noted that of the seven brides who came before her, two are also daughters of former brides. “We are already thinking to the next generation. Will I have daughters who might someday be able to wear the dress?” mused Coakley. “Sometimes, it's overwhelming to think about how much love and happiness is in that beautiful satin fabric.”
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