A Beautiful Life

MJ Miller
3 min readMay 31, 2021


It’s exquisite, this photograph.

Sidonia Biel, circa 1889. New York.

The simplicity with which it captures the essence of my great grandmother.

Look closely. Her expression. Nervousness or Serenity? Dreaming of what would be? Or what had been?

Look closely. The dress. Its detail. Its formality. Its absolute beauty. The delicate lace and handwork of the veil. Perfection.

It’s just a dress you might say. You might. You’d be wrong.

Long before I discovered the photo, my grandmother had shared the story. “My mother,” she would say, “made her own wedding dress.” As if to say, look what she did. Look what she accomplished.

At times it was to remind me how lucky I was. At times to remind me of who I came from. And at times I think, to remind herself.

My grandmother lived with us when I was a young woman just starting out my life. My first attempt at adulting. I would come home from my entry level job in the city, and sit with her. She with her sherry, me with my wine. She would tell me about her life in bits and pieces. I’d nod, sip, nod, but I never really understood.

It wasn’t until I came upon this photo that I felt the axis shift in me. In this singular moment that captured my imagination so completely. I felt a connection so strong, so palpable, I needed to dig deeper to understand.

My great grandmother could have made a simpler dress. She didn’t parade among New York’s elite society. She would have made a beautiful bride regardless of how stunning a dress she wore. Yet she crafted what truly can only be considered a wondrous garment.

I can only imagine the painstaking and meticulous effort that she brought forth. Her fingers deftly tatting lace as she worked late into the night, with only the dim light of a gaslit lamp.

She did so out of love. There could be no other explanation.

Simple. Pure. Love.

And out of that love, my grandmother was given a gift. A well-lived life. She was educated. Well-traveled. Had risen to a different strata of society. Yet like her mother, she sewed. I remember her Singer sewing machine always at the ready. The basket where our rips and tears of everyday life gathered; waiting to be mended.

Out of love.

Like her mother, she cooked. Recipes handed down from my great great grandmother. She didn’t cook regularly, didn’t host parties and show off her skills. She cooked for her grandchildren.

Out of love.

I have pondered for many years, since discovering the photo, why my grandmother felt this one accomplishment, this one remarkable dress, seemed to define her mother so completely.

It’s not just a dress.

I see it now. In her expression. In the dress itself. In the inspiration and wondrous talent that created it. It is itself a work of art. It speaks of who she was, how she felt about her wedding day, her husband-to-be and about life itself.

It’s not just a dress. It’s her life’s story.

She was a seamstress, by necessity. But it is in the dress that we see the artist.

She spoke seven languages, but it’s in the dress that we hear her.

She raised three children, but’s in the the dress that we see her hope for their future.

She was an immigrant. It’s in the dress that we are immersed in her dreams.

When I hear someone speak about illegal aliens and deportation and DACA and dreamers as if it’s all just political, I wonder if anything I can say will change their perspective.

Probably not. But maybe, just maybe, a photograph will do.