“This is it,” Mom points to a bridal salon with a sunken entrance on Union Street.
We duck inside. Immediately, a young, smiling sales lady looks me straight in the eye and asks, “Looking for a gown?”
I’m blindsided. Totally unprepared. I just look at her.
An awkward silent moment.
"I’m the bride," Mom leans in and whispers.
The sales lady’s perky expression turns confused.
Then, just as another silence teeters on the brink of unbearable awkwardness, the sales lady recovers, “Bridal party here to the right, gowns to the left.” She’s smiling now, relieved that her directives still apply despite the mix-up.
Mom, unnerved, turns magnetically “bridal party right.” She’s not ready to face the wedding gowns yet. And, she’s drawn to a classy woman her age searching the ‘mother of the bride’ and bride’s maids dresses. I follow in a daze.
“So hard to find the right “mother of the bride” dress,” the coiffed silver-haired shopper says.
“Yes,” Mom says bewildered.
Mom immediately dives into the dresses, pushing a blurry rainbow of pastel dresses down the rack in rhythmic 3-second intervals: examine, reject, slide; examine, reject, slide; examine, reject, slide. I’m entranced by the mechanical nature of the dress mission.
“Cookie. Cookie!” Mom snaps me out of my stupor.
She’s pulled a floor length, long-sleeved, silvery-gray taffeta ball gown off the rack.
“That?” I cry as if she’s just asked me to eat live rat.
“It’s not bad,” Mom defends. “Maybe they can make it in white?”
“Now why would you want that?” the silver-haired lady buts in. “White is for the bride. Silver is perfectly nice for the mother of the bride.”
“Right,” Mom answers and hangs the silvery-gray whale suit back on the rack.
Mrs. Know-it-All pretends to return to her shopping, but she’s obviously trying to size me and Mom up. Watching us out of the corner of her eye, sensing we might provide her with an outrageous story to tell her partners at the Marina Bridge Club.
I can see Mrs. Know-it-All now: “And there was this lady, our age, talking about wearing a white gown to her daughter’s wedding, a white gown!” Her bridge club partners shaking their heads in disapproval as Mrs. Know-it-All puts down an ace of hearts.
“Nothing here,” Mom says.
Good. I don’t want to give Mrs. Know-it-All any more material.
Mom stiffens her posture, girding herself as she aims for “the gown section.”
I follow dutifully.
The gown section is much busier. Giggles and whispers of excitement emanate from the women twittering about. Shoulder-to-shoulder with other mother-daughter pairs, we begin searching through the racks of white chiffon, lace, and silk. Mom looks at each dress discerningly, at least six seconds, before shifting them down the rack: examine, reject, slide; examine, reject, slide. She gains confidence and momentum as we move down the rack. She even breaks the rhythm a couple of times to pull a dress off the rack, hold it against her, and look to me for approval. I give three gowns the nod. The sales lady is now standing self-consciously off to the side, uncertain how, or if, to approach us. Mom takes the three hangers, lifts her arm straight above her head (so the dresses won’t drag,) turns, and as if participating in a silent military formation, marches into the dressing room. She snaps the dressing room curtain closed behind her.
The room now seems blindingly white, spinning with bridal buzz. I am light-headed. I move to the center of the room and sit down on the velvet divan. I put my elbows on my knees, hold my head, and close my eyes. Breathe.
When I open my eyes and look around, I see that I’m sandwiched between mothers of brides on the divan. The mother on my right is wearing pressed slacks and Ferragamo bow flats. Through stylish reading glasses, she’s studying the bridal magazine in her manicured hands. The mother on my left has legs like polyester sausages stuffed into cheap tight shoes. Her eyes are darting around the store and she’s nervously peeling off her fuchsia nail-polish.
“Isn’t it just great?” the poly mom says. “I mean all your life you dream of this moment, and you’ve finally found him. The one.” she sighs. “To be honest, I was getting worried about Esther, and now look at her! Trying on a Vera gown!” The mother gushes. “I didn’t even know who Vera Wang was until a few weeks ago.”
Really? You fooled me.
Then, she looks around and leans in and whispers to me, “Esther’s 35. She’s a very successful accountant, but she hadn’t had a serious boyfriend in years. Just a serial dater-ya know? Then she met Blake on the computer. And I thought, oh, this is bad news- especially since he didn’t have a job, but he kept talking about his idea for a dot-com start-up. Anyway, they exchanged e-mails and started dating, and it turns out he’s all right. Anyway, what can you do? It’s love.” A misty, distant look clouds her yes.
“What about you, honey? What’s the story?” she asks. “You must be thrilled.” Then in a sing-song voice she presses, “What’s his name?”
This can not be happening to me. Am I wearing a “talk to me” button?
“Stanley?” she asks.
“Stanley,” I repeat.
“That’s an unusual name these days. How old is he dear? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“I’m not marrying him.”
“My mother is.”
“Your mother is.”
“Oh, sorry,” she apologizes. “I didn’t mean to be presumptuous. I just figured…” she trails off. Then upon reflection, she says “How wonderful! Nothing like new love for your mom to erase memories of a nasty divorce.”
“She’s a widow,” I say.
“Oh dear. I am so sorry honey. There I go again. My ex-husband used to say I was too nosy. I am so sorry,” she pleads.
“Mom? Mom!” It’s Esther stuffed into a dress the way her Mom is stuffed into those poly-pants. “Come here, what do you think?” Esther’s mom jumps to attention and waddles over to her daughter. I’m liking Esther right about now.
I sift through the bridal magazines on the coffee table. The magazines: Modern Bride, Bride’s, and San Francisco Weddings are dog-eared and tattered from nervous brides planning every last detail of their dream day. On the slick, heavy pages, brides in their 20’s are radiant in their cream or ivory or white gowns. None look like they’d be my friends; too perfect, too carefree. And they certainly wouldn’t be Mom’s friends, especially the ones wearing tiaras.
But I have to wonder why these magazines, which are so successful at marketing romance to young dreamers, don’t tap the older market. Judging from my mother, older brides are spending like mad to create a fantasy and they have deeper pockets to do so. Did the editors of these mags just overlook the fête Barbara Streisand threw a few years back when she got hitched? In this pile of fairy tales, there aren’t even pictures of “mothers of brides,” let alone senior brides.
There aren’t any pictures for me, the “daughter of the bride” either. What am I supposed to wear to the nuptials? I look up from the magazines to scan the store for a "daughter of the bride" dress section. Now there’s a fantasy. Maybe some day "daughters of the bride" will become so common, they will eclipse the role of "mother of the bride." Maybe the idea of marriage will become so old-fashioned that only the 50-and-over crowd will do it, and a young bride will be nearly obsolete. Someone could make some nice pocket change writing a “daughter of the bride guide.”
I drop the fairy tale guides and walk over to the dressing room.
“What’s going on in there?” I ask.
“Shhh.” Mom says.
I look at the curtain, listen to the rustling and grunting behind it.
“Want help?” I ask.
“SHHHH,” she says much more audibly.
Then, she pokes her face out. The curtain is wrapped in a C-shape over the crown of her head and around her neck hiding her hair and body.
“It doesn’t fit.” She whispers. “I feel weird. Don’t want to come out.”
“Want me to come in?”
“No!” she snaps the curtain shut.
Okay. Cool. Glad to help.
Back I go to the burgundy divan, the magazines, and now, understanding looks from mothers-of-brides. We all know our brides are princesses: emotional, temperamental, and not entirely rational. Our job is to smile, be patient, supportive, and gently-so-gently honest. Esther’s mom glances my direction but looks away, uncomfortable.
Eventually, Mom emerges from the dressing room. She looks at me bashfully, then scans the room full of mothers and brides. A self-conscious expression flashes across her face, then she straightens her posture, nods, and smiles elegantly. She is beautiful in the ivory, spaghetti-strapped, sweet-heart neck, taffeta gown. She glides gracefully by me, towards a standing, oval, full-length mirror. A cascade of bustles tumbles down the lengthy train that follows her. She’s facing the mirror, and from behind she has the figure of a trim young woman; toned slender arms, sculpted back, a long, graceful neck. The twittering in the room silences. She’s looking at her reflection in the mirror, the brides and mothers stop to gaze at my mom the bride. She looks radiant and confident. I move toward her.
“Nope!” Mom shatters the dreamy, romantic silence of the moment.
The other ladies in the room quickly turn back to what they were doing.
“But you look beautiful,” I protest.
She starts to pull at the top, twist at the waist, and tug at the skirt.
“It’s just not right. Doesn’t fit.”
“It’s just a sample,” I say, “your dress will be tailored to fit.”
“I don’t know.”
“Look how flattering the dropped waist is on you. These straps are so thin and graceful, call them vermicelli straps. It’s lovely,” I encourage.
“Yes, but the bustles are gaudy, the cathedral train is too much, and I’m not 25, you know,” she growls.
I look again. She has a point. The dress is pretty busy. The beading and sequins around the bodice. The scalloped skirt. The half-dozen bustles. Yes, it’s a bit much.
“You’ll know when you find the right dress,” the sales lady suddenly reappears. “I’ve seen lots of brides come through here,” she explains. “And when you know, you know. It’s like finding the right man to marry. Once you see him, you don’t need to look any further.”
Is that so Miss 25-year old sales lady authority? Five minutes ago I overheard her tell the other sales lady, “If I get married, I’m going to elope. Weddings are too much hassle, too much money.”
I turn to Mom, “Yeah, you’ll know the right one when you see it.”
Ten minutes later, we’re in the car and onto the next store.