By Shelley Grieshop
FORT RECOVERY -- Seven-week-old Megan Knapke squirms as her mother places the snow-white christening gown over her head, gently guiding each arm through the doll-size sleeves.
Oblivious to the gown's legacy of nearly nine decades, the tiny infant yawns as she nestles into the arms of its original owner, her great-grandmother Georgiana Dues Meiring.
"Years and years ago people didn't treasure old things like they do today," says the baby's grandmother, Nancy Knapke of Fort Recovery. "Back then, clothing like this was just 'old.' "
Meiring, 89, Knapke's mother, shakes her head in agreement. Times have indeed changed, she says. As a matter of fact, she didn't use her now vintage baptismal gown for her own children -- four daughters and a son -- when they were solemnly introduced into the Catholic church as babes. Instead, she opted for purchased versions.
So for more than 50 years the gown and its unattached full-length slip lay neatly folded in Meiring's bedroom dresser -- her brother, Norman, and herself its sole models. Then 36 years ago, about the time Knapke's daughter, Kathy (Gonzalez), was born, Meiring mentioned the forgotten gown.
"Well, when we saw it, we couldn't believe it," Knapke says. "It was just stunning."
Knapke says she wasn't aware her mother still had the two-piece layered gown and was speechless when she saw the excellent shape it was in.
"People search for these types of things now. It's a keepsake," she says.
The top portion of the gown has loose-fitting long sleeves with a striking embroidered yoke, similarly found on the undergarment. Open-weave embroidering is found from top to bottom amid a trail of white-stitched leafing.
The slip is sleeveless and extends several inches beyond the length of the top gown. It, too, has amazing embroidered detail from its lacy yoke to the bottom hem. The small neckline on both dresses has made it difficult at times for new mothers to close the small snaps to the back, the women say.
Meiring, who was born on Easter Sunday, is sure the layered frock was purchased by her parents, George B. and Veronica Thieman Dues, and not made by hand.
"Although I know the Thieman family was known for their handiwork," she adds smiling.
To date, 13 of Meiring's grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren have worn the cotton gown for the holy sacrament. Megan, the daughter of Bill and Janet Knapke, was the most recent on July 3. Her cousin, newborn Abby Stone of Cincinnati, will get her turn next month.
Amazingly, the gown has held up extremely well over the years. Meiring, a past Mercer County Community Hospital and Center for Neurological Development volunteer, handwashes the approximately 40-inch long garment in mild detergent and air dries it.
"You don't want to make it move more than you have to," she adds.
She's careful to check for possible stains after each use to help preserve the clothing for years to come.
"Baby drool, you know, you have to get out right away," she says.
She spends about two hours tediously ironing the gowns using spray starch until both pieces have that "crisp" feel.
Then comes the personal touch.
"Mom puts these little rosebuds on the front for girls," Knapke explains, pointing to the pink flowers currently adorning the gown. "A blue ribbon is looped through the front for boys. We had a long stretch of blue ribbons until recently."
The gown traveled to California by way of a truck-driving relative for one baptism, and was shipped to St. Louis, Mo., twice for others. When two grandchildren, George Bell and Julie Zehringer (Bruns) were born and baptized on the same day 30 years ago, the gown was divided: one wore the slip, the other the top piece.
New babies in the family also pass down a walnut cradle made years ago by Meiring's husband, Herb, now deceased. Each high school graduate and newborn also cuddles up with afghans made by their great-grandmother.
Passing down these loving pieces from generation to generation is an honor, family members say. As for the gown, they know fancier styles can be found. But this one has a one-of-a-kind legacy.
"The fact that mom herself wore this on her own baptism day, makes it our family's little treasure," Knapke says.