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From day 111: An old dress helps create a new memory

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept 14, 2012 - When Jennifer Finley was 3, she wore the blue dress. It was a royal blue, with lace trim on the sleeves, a band of lace and three red roses across the front. It hit her spindly legs mid-thigh. She can’t remember that day at all, but it exists, like those memories created from years of hearing a story second-hand. 

She has other memories, too, some she thinks are hers, and some constructed from moments her older sisters and mother witnessed themselves.

Growing up, Finley's oldest sister, Karen Finley, remembers trips to the ice cream parlor, Sunday drives after church, and how their father would tuck Jennifer into the plaid baby seat on his bike and take his girls on a ride.

Finley's memories are less solid. She remembers how small she felt around her father, and how big his hands seemed.

The memories end there. Thirty seven years ago, Izel Finley was on his way home when he saw a man on the exit of the New Jersey Turnpike with a flat tire. Finley, a truck driver, stopped to help. Moments later, he was hit and killed by a drunk driver.

His girls were 10, 9, 8, 3 and 16 days old.

Finley, his fourth daughter, wore the blue dress to her daddy’s funeral. 

Growing up, she never thought about what she lost after losing him.

“I don’t think you realize how much of an impact it has until you have your own children,” says Finley, now 40. “You don’t realize how much you missed out on because that’s your life. You grew up without a dad.”

She knows now, though. She didn’t get his praise and affection. She didn’t see how a man in love should treat a woman and provide for his family. He wasn’t there to see her graduate from high school or college, to walk her down the aisle, to hold her babies, or to comfort her after her divorce.

Still, she says, “The way he was killed shaped the person that I am.”

Finley became a social worker and now lives in Houston, Texas. She didn’t know that her mother saved the small blue dress until last year, when she gave it to Finely. She wasn’t sure why, or what she should do with it. 

Then, she signed up to buy a painting from the year-long project celebrating black fathers from her college friend, Cbabi Bayoc, called 365 Days with Dad. They talked about losing their fathers at a young age.  And she mentioned the dress, which hangs in her closet now.

“He said, ‘OK, if you trust me, I’ll do something,’” she remembers.

She did. On May 8, Mother’s Day, Bayoc finished and posted Finley’s painting on Facebook. 

“Never Lettin Go” shows a little girl in a blue dress clinging to her father’s leg.

Finely has a scrapbook of photos and memories of her father that her oldest sister made, but the painting with the blue dress is the screen saver on Finley’s computer and phone, and it hangs in her living room. 

Now, she says, his voice is fading, her fuzzy memories get fuzzier, but this piece by her old friend revives her father a little. 

“It’s like a piece of him," she says.

It’s like a new memory. He's there, tall and solid and real, making her feel small and safe again. And she's not letting go.