On Shopping for My Daughter's Wedding Dress, Even Though I Lack the Bride Gene

My daughter looks to me for approval, and my smile has become a painful rictus. "What do you think?" she asks. I unhelpfully parrot, "I don't know, what do you think?"
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My daughter looks to me for approval, and my smile has become a painful rictus. "What do you think?" she asks. I unhelpfully parrot, "I don't know, what do you think?"

We step off the street into a world shrouded in powdery hush, and are escorted to the audience chairs. Except for my daughter—she is whisked away through the racks of billowy, frothy gowns. 

I shift in the hard seat, cross my legs at the ankle, and take a deep, lavender perfumed breath. I try not to sweat. Despite having been married three times, I have never been inside a bridal salon before.

Weeks previous, on my way home from a long planned, much enjoyed vacation, I received a text from my daughter. Her dress shopping was scheduled for the 15th. When I responded that that was the only weekend I absolutely could not make, but I was free for the rest of 2015, she responded "...you did not seem very excited about this wedding. You had a lot of your plate but I did/do not know how involved you wanted to be..."

Ouch.

A long string of apologetic texts (on both sides) followed. I could see her point. My lack of enthusiasm stemmed from my desire to stay out of the way, to be supportive but not pushy. But she is my child, and we both know the problem. I don't possess the 'bride gene.'

If, like my daughter and myself, you've seen every episode and both films of Sex and the City, you know that the bride gene is what Carrie bemoans lacking, at length, because she is ambivalent about marriage. (Later she appears in a big, glam, multiple designer wedding dress montage because her speech, like many speeches on SATC, is meaningless filler waiting to be undercut by fabulous shoes).

My kneejerk response to my daughter's lack of faith in me was to go out and purchase every bridal magazine I could find. I had never purchased a bridal magazine before, although I have glanced at them when all the Peoples and Marie Claires are already taken at the nail salon.

I force some gaiety as my daughter and I leaf through them together. It's not like I don't understand the concept of wedding dresses. My daughter and I adore all the bad bride shows on TLC: Bride by Design, Four Weddings, and especially Say Yes to The Dress, with its forced, staged conflicts: the competitive bridesmaids, the sourpuss Grandma, the mother who thinks you dress like a whore. It is terrific fun.

But in real life, choosing a wedding dress held as much fascination for me as the selection of the wedding venue, or centerpieces or invitations. Which is none.

I am a woman with an opinion about nearly everything; the novels of Elena Ferrante, the current Republican front-runners, the best Bond, fish tacos, flavored vodka, Glenn's "death" on The Walking Dead. It takes very little to send me yapping like an inbred Bichon Frise. But I still recall, once upon a time, being presented with three (which to my eyes were identical) shades of eggshell stationary and being asked to choose the best for my 'response card', and feeling like I was trapped in some horrific Jean-Paul Sartre existential nightmare where everyone knows the answer but me, and they aren't telling, and the stakes are fraught with consequences that I cannot grasp.

In the meantime, my daughter floats out in a spectacular dress. She looks perfect. But I don't know if this is the one she really wants, the best one, and I don't know how many more she will show us, and so I am oohing and aahing, but trying to mimic the exact tone of the oohing and aahing around me and fixing a smile on my face that I hope is positive without being overbearing, a smile I will attempt to replicate for each dress my daughter presents. A smile that says, "This dress is perfect—unless you like the next one better!" The staging room increasingly small and airless, like being smothered with a satin glove.

One of the bridesmaids sits beside me, a young woman I've known since the girls were middle-schoolers; a young woman who, like my daughter, is smart and lovely and accomplished with that confidence the girls of her generation have, the confidence that comes from the knowledge that they are knocking the fucking cover off the ball. When my daughter is led away to try the next dress, the bridesmaid makes polite conversation. She asks me what my wedding dress had been like.

I wish for a simple answer.

The first time I got married, I was a twenty-year-old college junior. No, I did not grow up in Appalachia, or Amish country. Even in the 80s, getting married that young was a weird thing to do. I can offer little explanation other than saying that, unlike my daughter and her friends, I did not have a lot of confidence. But my boyfriend sure did—barrels full—a quality that I would discover as I grew older is not uncommon in people with borderline personalities.

I remember little about the wedding planning. My mother did most of the heavy lifting, and my fiancé did the rest. I stood by, passively agreeing to all of it. And I wore my mother's dress and got married in a church, both of which delighted her.

(Me? Not so delighted)

(Me? Not so delighted)

It was not a fancy or expensive dress. It did not fit me very well (I am two inches taller than my mother, even before she started shrinking) and I never bothered to have it altered. The event had already grown into an unwieldy thing. Purchasing a dress would've been one responsibility I could not pass off to someone else. It would force me to become involved in my own wedding—and I didn't want to be.

Within a year my husband was not speaking to a single one of the ten groomsmen he'd insisted upon having. Within two years we were divorced, splitting up our meager apartment and heading our separate ways.

My daughter glides out in another gown, this one a 'Hayley Paige.' There are a lot of designer names being tossed around the room that everyone seems to know but me; Lazaro, Monique Lhuillier, Gemy Maalouf, the 'silhouettes' might be mermaid, or trumpet or sheath or princess or A-line. 

My daughter looks to me for approval, and my smile has become a painful rictus. "What do you think?" she asks. 

I unhelpfully parrot, "I don't know, what do you think?" The consultant adds a bedazzled belt, a gauzy veil. She seems disappointed when I don't cry. She offers me a tissue box anyway.

At my second wedding, I wore a sundress that was already hanging in my closet. My boyfriend and I drove ourselves to the courthouse in Los Angeles, where a nice judge mispronounced my name, and too self-conscious to correct him, I echoed it back wrong. I was very concerned about not repeating past mistakes. This time I was not going to be blinded by ceremony, this would be about partnership, with someone I knew well, someone I'd been living with for years, someone I was compatible with. I did not want any bells and whistles; those wedding trappings were for silly kids.

(God...the hair)

(God...the hair)

Six years later it turned out we were not compatible, and we split up a house that was not so meager, and headed ways that weren't entirely separate, because now there were children involved.

As I wait for my daughter to emerge in another dress, my stomach growls audibly. We should not have scheduled the gown shopping so close to lunchtime. I wonder how many more dresses she has back there. I'm sure she is also hungry, which concerns me, as we've both been known to make flip decisions if it means getting fed sooner.

Many years would pass before I picked up another bouquet. So many that when I went to buy a dress for my third wedding, which would take place in front of the home where I lived with my boyfriend of thirteen years, my now grown daughter took me to Barney's to shop for a dress. There we found a lacy pale blue cocktail number—on sale.

The arm I am clutching belongs to my son.

The arm I am clutching belongs to my son.

I still have the dress, and I still have the husband. I don't know if the 'third time's a charm,' (I am also his third spouse) but this time around marriage is easier, simpler, perhaps our expectations are more realistic. Perhaps we are just tired.

I am painfully aware that I am the least helpful person in this bridal salon. I could not be more useless at a fantasy football draft. The dresses are all nice. They are all appropriate. My daughter would look lovely in any one of them. Perhaps we should select the forty-seven-year-old running back on crutches.

But then she flounces out of the dressing room in a swirl of froth. She stands in front of the mirror, and I see a look slowly spread across her face... an expression I've seen before.

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The moment is magical. Thank goodness. It's time for lunch.