Six Dresses, Thanksgiving Edition: How I Told My Inspirational Story, One Cocktail Dress at a Time by Elisa Schmitz
Last month to celebrate my birthday, I kicked off a series of social media posts called Six Dresses. It was intended to get me out of my yoga pants and hoodies and back into the dresses in my closet that I used to wear all the time, pre-pandemic. I ended up not only having the most fun I’ve had in months, dressing up in my evening gowns again, but also inspiring others along the way. (In case you missed it, you can read the first Six Dresses article.)
That’s why I decided to do it again for Thanksgiving. This time, though, I went beyond recounting memories inspired by my dresses. For Thanksgiving, I dug deeper and shared parts of my life I had never revealed before. I ended up telling parts of my life story, one cocktail dress at a time.
So I asked my husband for a Thanksgiving gift: a picture a day for my Six Dresses, Thanksgiving Edition. He again served as location scout, lighting coordinator, director and photographer for the photo shoots, and I’m grateful for this gift that brought me joy and inspiration and connection throughout the gratitude season.
Dress One: Tuesday, November 17, 2020
I’m back in a little black dress that’s been hibernating in my closet because I want to tell you something you probably already know: Things aren’t always as they seem. After my Six Dresses birthday series last month, I was grateful to get so much kind feedback, including how healthy I look.
The reality is that while on many days I am doing well, there are many other days that I struggle with underlying health issues. For the last seven years, I’ve been battling a rare autoimmune disease as well as dysautonomia and a host of other related health conditions that affect my life nearly every day. Some days, it’s things like migraines, joint pain or severe allergic reactions. Other days, it’s shooting and tingling pain throughout my body or wild, unrelenting swings in my heart rate that land me in the hospital.
Having just gotten through a particularly difficult few days, and with Thanksgiving just around the corner, I wanted to share how grateful I am: for my husband who’s at my side for every breath, no matter how painful; for my family who tries their best to be supportive; for friends who care, especially the ones who have literally helped to keep me alive at particularly dire times; for my work and community, that give me a sense of purpose to inspire and be inspired; for God and this great universe, who I stay connected to and rely upon to get through it all.
So in gratitude, I kick off my Six Dresses, Thanksgiving Edition, in this kickass cocktail dress by designer David Meister, to make me feel alive and to share what’s in my heart at this special time. Please join me by sharing what’s in your heart during Thanksgiving, my friends. I am grateful for you.
"Your brave soul touches my heart. Happy Thanksgiving to you – may we all focus on the simple joy of gratitude for all we have, and ignore the rest!" – Dawn L.
"You are so amazing. Thank you for sharing your story. I am grateful and blessed for so many things this past year! I wish you more good days then bad my friend for the upcoming year and beyond. Love you lady!" – Mindy H.
"I am so grateful that our paths have crossed. You continue inspire me to no no end." – Gail H.
"Elisa, just wow. All this time I never knew you had such a health battle. I knew I loved you. I knew you were an inspiration for so many. I knew you were a source to be reckoned with, but I didn’t know this. Now love you more!! You truly are a godsend to me and I’m so thankful to call you friend. And I love you in all of these dresses." – Holly B.
"You're amazing and so strong, I had no idea you were dealing with so much. Your spirit remains a bright light for us all! Thank you for sharing, and for your inspiration everyday!" – Stephanie C.
Dress Two: Thursday, November 19, 2020
My mother, Maria Elisa, the youngest of 13, was born and raised in a pequeño pueblo in Puerto Rico. Her mother was mostly a single mom who ran the family farm and made clothing. Mom was primarily raised by her older sister Margarita. Because of her sister’s sacrifices, Mom was able to devote herself to her education. After earning a scholarship to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she met my father, an immigrant who’d only been in the United States a few years himself. Mom ended up completing the coursework for her Ph.D., and taught in the Chicago Public Schools.
Mi madre would love this dress by designer Adrianna Papell; not only because of its flouncy flair, but also because of its bold shade of violet. Mom and I both attended Northwestern University for grad school, so we share a passion for purple.
Mom and I also share a love for Spanish. Since her dementia diagnosis, she’s been speaking to me in our native tongue. She reverts from the English she speaks with others and we chat en Español. With little by little of my feisty mother slowly slipping away, these chats have become a way to connect.
Every day after she’d get home from teaching, Mom took a nap. She needed to recharge before the family portion of her day began around 5:30 p.m. That’s when she would get up and turn on the music. I lived for those times. Not only because she would light up when she heard José Feliciano or The Gipsy Kings, but also because she would sing and dance while she cooked dinner. I reveled in her joy.
I recently made the connection in my life now. Around 5:30 p.m., I stop my work and head to the kitchen. The other day, my husband walked into the room, gave me a twirl and said, “I love this time of day. You turn on the music and you sing and dance.” Surprised, I smiled in recognition even though I hadn’t made the conscious connection. All those years, Mom had been showing me her way to find happiness in the everyday, and her joy gave me joy. Then I effortlessly picked up that baton and ran (danced) with it.
It turns out that joy is contagious. It’s always there to be found, you just have to pick a channel and turn up the volume. You don’t even need a purple dress.
"Beautiful. Your ability to find joy through and because of a great guide, your mother, gave me chills in recognition. Thank you for sharing! You are an inspiration and I'm sure your mother will live on through you, forever more. She must be so proud!" – Stephanie C.
"I love every word of this story. It’s so touching and heartfelt. I’m glad you can still connect with your mom, and I feel for you because it must be so difficult seeing her change. Oh, and not that it’s important, but you look like a knockout in that dress!" – Julie P.
Dress Three: Saturday, November 21, 2020
Cocktail dresses call for cocktails, and this black and white frock by designer Aidan Mattox is no exception. Its blend of geometric lines above with organic layers below strikes a perfect balance, so I’ll toast to that.
When speaking of perfection, I think of my father. With not much more than the clothes on his back, at age 14 he arrived in the United States from war-torn Europe with his parents and two younger brothers. My grandfather was a talented builder who also worked on the railroad and hunted wild game, along with my grandmother, to put food on the table. Using their old-world woodworking skills, my grandparents started a custom cabinet shop that turned into a thriving Midwest business. Their three sons worked alongside them, and the youngest, Joseph, eventually took over the shop. My dad, K. John, and the middle brother, Bruno, both became architects.
Given his love for the railroad that stems back to the old country, it’s easy to understand why my dad specialized in transportation architecture. He rose to the role of Chief Architect and was sent all over the world to help cities improve their transportation systems.
His career took our family as far away as Beirut, Lebanon, at a time when it was becoming a war zone. Some of my earliest memories are the sound of gunfire and the sight of women covered head to toe in black, running in response to the shots. While I don't know that I would have made the same decision for my young kids, I do know that Dad’s heart was always in the right place and he wanted the family to stay together.
But that drive for perfection was always there, which is to be expected. After all, you wouldn’t be a very good architect if things didn’t line up just right. As the architect’s daughter, I push back on the need to be perfect. My experience has taught me that perfection can be the enemy of accomplishment. When I get to a place that I feel is good enough, I go with it, course correcting as needed. I’ve gotten pretty good at iterating, which has helped me achieve success.
Life is too short to obsess about perfection. Whether in our personal or professional lives, let’s make good enough the new perfect.
"That is so beautiful!" – MaryAnn G.
"I tend to look at someone's life by what they leave behind. That alone gives your father an amazing historical legacy, as he helped to shape and raise you." – Michael P.
Dress Four: Monday, November 23, 2020
Why dresses? As a child, I felt like I never had the right clothes that would enable me to fit in with my classmates. And my immigrant parents, not understanding the unwritten rules of coolness at my school, didn’t get why I “needed” IZOD or Polo shirts, so that was that. I tried to focus on what I did have, and a positive mindset helped.
But what I wanted was an IZOD shirt, so I figured out how to make it happen. A few families with younger children moved in nearby. Because no one was home at my house and I was always out in the neighborhood, I would play with the littles when they were outside with their parents. “Have you started babysitting yet?” one of the moms asked me.
Just like that, I was hired. I was only 10 years old. I loved babysitting, and earning my own money for the first time, I had an epiphany. If my parents wouldn’t buy me the clothes I “needed,” I’d buy them myself. I’ll never forget the first IZOD shirt I bought. It was a little striped number with the legendary green alligator. I wore it so often, I got teased for wearing the same shirt all the time. I went back to work so I could buy more. Soon, I had two clients, then four, then more. For the first time, I felt important and empowered. Work became my refuge, the place where I felt special.
I loved being responsible for what I wore and how I expressed myself. Fashion brought me joy (I even started out as a fashion design major in college, though it didn’t stick). I moved on from IZOD, as dresses felt more fun and creative. This purple cocktail dress by designer Ralph Lauren is a good example of classic style that makes me smile.
To keep that sense of empowerment, I’ve been working ever since – working my way through school, throughout my pregnancies (including while in the hospital for six weeks on an IV drip of meds to prevent premature delivery of my identical twins), through my divorce and as a single mom, even while I was seriously ill. Work is a rewarding part of my life, an antidote to the chaos. I have always loved what I do, and that makes work feel less like work and more like a calling. I’ve found it’s true that when you’re passionate about your purpose, you’ll never “work” a day in your life.
"Beautiful purple dress, it looks great on you. You sure did have a interesting life and great attitude. I would think that made you so successful." – MaryAnn G.
"Love the purple! And the Izods! Your writing is amazing. So authentic and rich in sharing your experience. I relate to your passion about work as a calling, and fulfilling a purpose." – Kim H.
"I love your childhood story! And I couldn’t agree more about doing what you love!" – Ann Marie G.H.
"This resonates. Same school, same Izod dreams, same path to my one red Izod sweater, also teased for regular wear. I'm glad you made life-long lemonade out of lemons, for sure, but can’t help feeling a little sad that our self esteem was so tied to material things because we were smart, talented, interesting kids." – Laura M.
Dress Five: Wednesday, November 25, 2020
The thing about life is, it can really get you down sometimes. We all have our struggles, and many times we feel like we’re on our own to deal with the chaos that comes at us. Over the course of my Six Dresses stories, I’ve begun to share just a bit of my chaos with you. There have been times over the years when I didn’t know if I’d make it through, and pulling back the curtain on my life, even just a little, has felt equal parts terrifying and liberating. But the point is to connect a bit more deeply, especially during these extra-challenging times when so much connection has been lost, and to relay the message that we all deal with chaos yet we are not alone. We’re all in this thing called life together and, whether we realize it or not, we all affect each other in one way or another.
So today, in this sequin cocktail dress by designer Tadashi Shoji, sipping Silver Oak Cabernet, I want to remind you that chaos will keep coming. But it’s up to you to decide how to deal with it and how it will affect you. You can let all that friction make you feel angry or sad or helpless or paralyzed. You can let life’s chaos deflate you or rob you of your joy and sparkle.
Or, you can choose to see the friction as challenges to overcome, and that by overcoming them, you are getting stronger and braver. You can view your chaos as tests you need to pass, one by one, and by passing them, you’re getting smarter and more resilient. No matter what comes at you, you have a choice in how to respond. You can lie down and let it run you over, or you can stand up and face it head on.
My friends, I choose to stand up. I choose to sparkle, and I hope you will, too. If I haven’t told you yet this week, I’m grateful for you.
"That’s a dazzler of a dress!" – Julie D.
"Might be my favorite! Keep sparkling! Grateful for your sharing your journey in such an authentic and vulnerable way." – Kim H.
"Thankful for your endless positivity." – Jacqueline B.
"My favorite so far. Sparkle on, lady!" – Laura M.
"Grateful for your Six Dresses series, Elisa." – Aspasia A.
Dress Six: Friday, November 27, 2020
There have been many times in my life when I have thought, “I just wish I were normal.” What is “normal,” anyway? I have come to understand that there is no normal, there is only our own authenticity. Normal is simply a powerful mirage that distracts us from the beauty and strength of our authentic selves.
The way I see it, many of us are labeled as some type of “other” at some point in our lives: Person of color? Single parent? LGBTQ? Differently-abled? Immigrant? Health-challenged? Religious or not? Unemployed? The list goes on – in some way or another. To many people, being an other might be considered a limitation, a weakness. But not to me. Instead, I believe it can be a strength. I should know. Starting at birth, I racked up label after label as the world tried to define me. While my background and my life have definitely not been what most would consider normal, they are MY normal. And while the labels the world has given me may conveniently slot me into some appropriate category or another, for some purpose or another, they don’t tell my story.
In my view, the only labels that really matter are the ones I give myself. Those are the labels that define the authentic me.
So I label myself as kind, courageous, strong, passionate, innovative, thoughtful, fun and resilient, to name a few. These are among the labels that provide a type of roadmap for my journey and guide my actions in the world. They’re a starting point for how I stay true to who I am, and to the me that I strive to be every day.
As I close out the Thanksgiving Edition of my Six Dresses series, in this golden cocktail dress sipping Caymus Cabernet, I encourage you to stay true to who you really are. If you don’t already have your own, consider coming up with labels that describe you or who you want to be. Don’t rely on the world to tell you who you are. Forget normal. Label yourself, and be true to the authentic you. Stay gold, my friends.
"Caymus is our family favorite! Cheers to you and your beautiful dresses, your beautiful words and your beautiful self!" – Dawn L.
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