In the late fall of 1995, I got married. There is, of course, nothing unusual about that, except that I was forty-six years old and a first-time bride.
I had considered marriage many years before, when I was in college. I considered it so carefully that I broke an engagement. Then I didn't think about it much for five or six years, when I became encumbered by an uncooperative would-be fiancé. After that, I hardly thought about it at all.
Until I reached my mid-forties. And then it hit me: I was single and I didn't want to be. Lucky for me, I met the man who was to become my husband. He was forty-eight and had never been married, either. He proposed marriage in May, and from that moment until my walk down the aisle five and a half months later, I found myself performing as a willing but poorly prepared player in a side show of social expectations.
Most little girls fantasize about being brides, but I don't remember ever doing that. It stunned me, therefore, when, as a bride, I discovered that inside my head was an entire bank of knowledge I hadn't known I possessed. I rhapsodized about the subtleties of afternoon formal clothes, engraving styles, and ushers' gifts. It was as though some Jungian organism, long dormant in my unconscious, had been suddenly aroused and was taking over all available territory.
It scared me. What other body of obscure knowledge was germinating inside my head, waiting for its opportunity to burst forth and embarrass me?
But it wasn't just I who stopped making sense. My female friends' behavior changed the moment I announced my engagement. Women whose normal conversation embraced such topics as eighteenth century English literature and post-modern feminism would spot me in a room and blurt out "What are your colors?" or "Have you chosen your flowers?" But most often, they asked "Have you gotten your dress?"
The dress. My wedding dress.
Where I’m from, "the dress" conjures up images of young girls with unformed faces wear outrageously long and elaborately sewn white beaded gowns, looking radiant in veils, having somehow recovered from continuous knock-down-drag-outs with their field-marshal mothers. (One acquaintance told me that, as she was preparing to be a very young bride, her mother began compulsively beading everything in sight. On her wedding night, she was mortified to discover that Mother had beaded all of her underwear.)
What it doesn't conjure up is the image of a graying, middle-aged female with a chronically drowsy look brought about by peri-menopausal insomnia. A half century ago, the proper bride feared losing her virginity; the modern bride fears losing her identity. My greatest fear was be caught short at the altar with a half tank of estrogen.
I knew that something was wrong with this picture. And what was wrong was thrust right into my face the first time I dared to venture into a bridal shop: I was taken to see dresses on a rack labeled For the Mother of the Bride. I watched with a kind of terrified fascination as skinny girls—these were definitely not yet women—floated awkwardly by in dresses that cost as much as my car.
After my early forays into bridal shops, I developed a phobic avoidance of anything to do with the Wedding Dress. I kept telling myself that I'd recognize it when I saw it, but that was going to be difficult as I was steering clear of every possible environment where a wedding dress might be lurking. I wasn't twenty years old, and if I had married at twenty, I would never have wanted the voluminous, expensive creation that is supposed to be proper attire for a bride.
Then something happened that changed my outlook. I was in the stationer's shop, checking on my order, when I saw a woman a few years my senior who had married for the first time just a couple of years before. "Have you gotten your dress yet?" she asked, upon hearing of my engagement. I said I hadn't.
She then gave me a list of designers and stores who specialized in creating and selling "wedding dresses suitable for women our age. Mature women," as she put it.
I bolted from the shop right then and there. From that moment on, I knew that I would never, ever appear in public in some designer's idea of a bridal attire for a woman "my age." I wanted, deserved, and had to have a real wedding dress.
I found my dress in a department store. It wasn't wildly expensive, but it was unmistakably a wedding dress. It had brocade, beads, a tiny waist, tiered sleeves, a low-cut bodice that required a strapless bra, and it fit as though it had been custom-sewn for me.
Immediately sure that this was my wedding dress, I abandoned the relative safety of the dressing room and marched out onto the floor of the busy department store, my tightly encased bodice on view for anyone who cared to look. I remembered the blank faces of the girls in the bridal shops, and I knew with certainty that I did not look like them.
I had sworn I would not wear a veil of any kind, yet a few weeks later I found myself standing in a little shop on an exclusive small town street, consulting with the owner about a veil I wanted her to design. On my way home, I began to wonder if it were possible for someone with pre-marital stress to enter a fugue state and not be responsible for her actions.
Like every other bride, I eventually reached the point at which it was too late to worry about arrangements. The flowers, the music, the cars, the food, the program—they were all left to fate. Fortified by tradition, I told the groom to make himself scarce on our wedding day, and he disappeared to take refuge with his groomsmen.
I spent the morning having a leisurely breakfast and tried to relax as the morning wore on. I was to be called for by my attendant and an assorted entourage right after lunch to be taken to the church. As my departure time grew nearer, I made myself a drink. I carried my bourbon, my cat Garbo and a Judy Garland CD into the bedroom where Judy sang "This is my lucky day," "The bells are ringing for me and my gal," and "I can't give you anything but love." I zipped up my dress and adjusted my veil.
I was a bride.
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