It's a simple christening gown with a small lace collar and puffed sleeves. It was made more than a half century ago by a happy young bride who took a piece of her husband's past and wove it into her family's future.
The courtship of Matthew Smith and Adele Guinee began in 1942. She was a student at Emmanuel College; he was an 18-year-old sophomore at Harvard who had just enlisted in the Army Air Forces. After he left for basic training, the smitten pair exchanged letters that grew more frequent as Smith flew 42 missions over the South Pacific.
Ironically, the young bombardier's most dangerous flight came while he was on rest leave in Australia and headed back to the Indonesian island of Morotai, where he was stationed. He was one of 23 men on a two-engine C-47 equipped with only 16 parachutes when bad weather and low fuel prompted the co-pilot to offer landing options no passenger ever wants to hear: would they prefer to jump, or ditch?
Smith was one of 15 men who parachuted; the rest ditched with the plane and landed safely. Smith and seven other men landed on a 1,900-foot-high pile of jagged rocks. One of the men was killed; the rest were hospitalized for weeks. Smith suffered a concussion, body bruises and scrapes.
"Let's just say I was a sorry-looking sight," he said.
Smith would fly 20 more missions after he recovered. His last was over Taiwan on Aug. 6, 1945, the same day the bomb that started the end of the war was dropped on Hiroshima.
He was discharged as a first lieutenant in fall 1945. A month later, he and Adele walked down the aisle of St. Joseph's Church in Medford and became man and wife. Their first son, Daniel, was born in 1946, and the couple bought a home in Auburn. Smith returned to Harvard, earned a degree and became an insurance actuary. But his real love was working with kids, so he left the job and became a math teacher at Auburn High School.
"I took a big cut in pay and was happy for the rest of my life," he said.
The couple would have seven children. A year ago, they were devastated when their second son, David, died of cancer at age 60. The father of three graduated from Harvard like his father, and also held advanced degrees from Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania.
Today, Matthew and Adele are both 89. Three years ago, they moved to Charlton. They'll be married 67 years Nov. 25 and have been blessed with a full and happy life.
"I think if you respect each other and are crazy about each other to begin with, the rest is easy," Adele said.
The Smiths know they're lucky. Matthew, in particular, lost friends in the war and realizes how close he came to losing his own life in the parachute jump near Sydney.
So when he returned from the war, he brought the white nylon parachute with him. After their first son was born, Adele took the chute that had enabled her husband to float back to earth, and fashioned a christening gown for her son with a simple needle and thread. As the years passed, six more children would wear the same gown at their baptisms, along with their children's children. With each celebration of birth, the little dress also serves as a symbol of sacrifice, and of the preciousness of life.
"If it wasn't for that parachute, my husband might not be here," Adele said. "I had never sewn anything before, and I've never sewn anything since."
Last week, at a church in Somerset, Adele's namesake and the couple's fourth great-grandchild became the 18th baby to wear the nylon christening gown. The dress has grown fragile and yellow over three generations; to the family, it remains irreplaceable.
"We're not the same, either," Mr. Smith said. "But it's been a joyous ride. The parachute is as old as I am, and we're going down the same road in the end."
This post was originally posted on the Telegram.com.