It’s a celebratory rite: wedding dress shopping. A day of perfect, unwavering joy, when a mother dotes on her bride-to-be daughter.
Recently, my daughter, Katie, and I set out for such an occasion, determined to make a purchase by day’s end. Because of COVID-19, Katie could only invite two guests: her younger sister Suzanne and me. I’m not the best with time management, so I hurried to be ready for our COVID-mandated appointment. Katie killed time in the kitchen while I fussed with my face. When I saw Suzanne ready—for once early—I asked her to get gas in the ten minutes I needed before leaving. Our local gas station, in Parkton, is two traffic-free miles away. Eager to be a loyal maid of honor, she agreed.
“While you’re there,” I said, “pick up a quart of cream of crab soup.” (I know it may seem strange, a gas station selling cream of crab soup, to anyone other than a Marylander.)
Before long, Katie and I were pacing the driveway. “Why did you ask her to get crab soup?”
“It made no sense to get it later if she were buying gas now. And you love cream of crab soup.”
Katie called Suzanne’s phone. “Why won’t she pick up?”
My husband opened the door, Suzanne’s phone in hand. Katie resumed pacing. “I’m calling the bridal shop.” And what are you going to say, I inquired. “That we’ll be late over cream of crab soup.”
She paused by a pine tree, adjusted the headband on her brown bob, and waited for someone to pick up. And then her sing-songy voice confirmed her proficiency at crafting vague excuses.
When Suzanne pulled in, we nearly dragged her from the driver’s seat and tossed the soup like a hot potato to my husband who watched our freneticism with the calm stance of a freak show veteran.
“What the hell?” Katie glared at Suzanne in the back seat.
“Apparently gas station crab soup is popular—the line was so long.”
On the Baltimore beltway, I drove with focus, changed lanes efficiently, glided into pockets of progress. At the exit ramp near our destination, I sighed. I thought of the day’s purpose. My baby had grown from a chubby-cheeked ball of giggles to a Doodle Bear-drawing kid to a city-smart woman. In many ways, Katie had come to know more than her parents.
Her first taste of role reversal occurred freshman year. She studied in London, and her dad and I visited—our first trip to Europe. We arrived that November, and she showed us Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, The Globe Theatre, and how to travel the Tube to Piccadilly Circus.
One day, with a full load of classes, Katie left us alone to navigate the city. She worried about us—two nincompoop Americans staring bugged-eyed at steepled architecture, targets for pickpockets. We managed splendidly. She found us, as night settled, in a dark-paneled pub, snug beside a fire, shoveling fish and chips down our gullets. We were wasted. Disgusted, she chided us like a dorm mother half-tempted to drag us by our collars to our Kensington suite. That would teach us.
We reminded her who was paying her bills.
Since moving to New York City—on her own dime—Katie has led us through her world. From breweries to food trucks to waterfront parks—for all things NYC—she is our fast-walking, fact-checking expert, and we happily defer to her.
These memories flooded my brain as my turn signal bleated at the exit. An image of wedding-day Katie, her father by her side, carried my sensibilities away.
“Oh no,” I said. “It’s happening.”
Katie peered at me. “Not yet, Mom. We haven’t gotten there. You’re supposed to wait till I’m in a dress—the dress.”
“Nope, it’s coming.” I choked out ugly sobs and could barely see the road as tears streaked my freshly made face. Thank God my mask hid my red nose, but my bloodshot eyes made me look high.
As we entered the shop, where Michael Bublé crooned from the ceiling, I blurted from behind my mask, “I cried in the car.” The saleslady took a step back as if I had threatened to spread a virus.
That was the beginning of me saying blunt, raw comments that matched my emotions. When Katie tried on a mermaid cut with a plunging neckline that would make Roger Rabbit’s eyes’ pop, I said, “You want your uncles looking at that?”
More than once, as she stepped out of a fitting room, before she could make it to the trifold mirror, I said, “No. Hate it. Take it off,” and she’d about-face.
Suzanne and I reviewed gowns in the queue. “I want to try on a dress,” Suzanne said as she caressed a brocade front. “It’s not your day,” I reminded her.
I turned and chatted up our salesperson, Rachel, about the ring on her hand. “It’s a promise ring.” She centered the tiny stone on her finger. “My boyfriend hasn’t officially proposed yet.” I clucked my tongue and winced, before I saw Suzanne frown at me.
Defenseless against my lack of filter, I resumed my commentary. It wasn’t like Katie loved the dresses I criticized. None of them checked all her boxes. She wanted to feel pretty, sexy, innocent, and skinny—all in one.
Finally, she peeked from the fitting room, her face flush. I knew she’d found a good one, but—in a moment of weakness—I was making small talk with the neighboring bride. I couldn’t cut off this stranger in order to give Katie my undivided attention. I suppose I also didn’t want to jinx it, so I sat and said little while Rachel fastened the dress in front of the mirrors. But Katie’s face transformed—tears sparkled in her blue eyes.
“This is the one,” she said.
“It’s beautiful.” Suzanne straightened the train.
I squinted till my crow’s feet crinkled. Undoubtedly, the dress hummed with energy. From the full, embroidered skirt to the corseted bodice to the sweetheart neckline, it emitted joy on Katie’s curvaceous frame.
“Don’t you like it?” Katie’s hands stroked her slender waist. “It’s a good cut for my shape–and comfortable.”
“Stick out your belly like you’ve had three beers.”
She did dutifully. “Feels great.”
“Lift your arms like you’re dancing. And jump.”
We watched her bop like a child.
I made her walk the room. She spread her arms and twirled, a hybrid of Julie Andrews on a mountain and Amy Adams in Central Park.
“I don’t like these breast cups.” I looked down at her chest, ready to scoop those boobs into place.
She adjusted her bodice and shimmied. “It’s fine.” It was not fine. “I can have the seamstress look at it,” Rachel said.
We waited a long time till a woman with a straight-pin bracelet appeared.
“Oh no, this is wrong,” she said. Her Eastern European accent told me all would be right. She examined the corseted back. “This was not tied correctly.”
I turned to Rachel. “Raaaaychelllll.” But the joke fell flat, mostly because everyone still felt bad about her promise ring.
The seamstress pulled up the bodice and adjusted the back and made conclusions about tucking and hemming and when she was finished, the dress positioned correctly on Katie’s beautiful frame, I announced, “This is the one!”
Later, in the car, Katie said she was upset by my initial response to the dress. “I had tears in my eyes, I was so excited, and you just found fault with it.”
“It had to be perfect. If that seamstress hadn’t come out, you might have worn the dress incorrectly on your wedding day. That would have been far worse.”
I couldn’t believe how easily she conceded. I know I can be cruel in my candor and thought I deserved some backlash for my day’s comments. Was I forgivable? Perhaps Katie realized old suburban moms have wisdom worth listening to.
Clearly our expectations did not align. Katie envisioned a wedding dress epiphany. She expected to don the perfect gown and pose on the mirror-encircled platform before Suzanne and me, the lowly subjects of her court. A ceiling tile would slide open like a sunroof and light beams levitate her in a slow motion rotation of splendor—like when Princess Fiona is transformed. But Katie would be the Cameron Diaz version not an ogre. Suzanne and I would ahhh in wonder.
But, I had agreed to finance the purchase, and, in thirty years of marriage to an accountant, I’ve learned to spend wisely. I was not going to buy a dress based on vibes. Still, the day was good. We laughed trying to determine Katie’s style. Every iteration ended with princess or ball gown or royal flair—even though Katie has never been princess-y. (She spent her middle school years dressed as a skater named Kyle.) And Rachel really was awesome—she picked the dress.
I wish I had thought to play Taylor Swift on our ride home: I know I had the best day with you today. Eh—I would’ve cried.
And it’s hard—with a stuffy nose—to enjoy cream of crab soup.