Gwen Ann and Alice walked side by side into the bridal shop. “It will be fun,” Gwen Ann promised her daughter. “This is what mothers and daughters do, they shop for wedding dresses together.”
Alice felt like rolling her eyes but she relented. She might as well get it over with.
Inside the store, Gwen Ann ran her hands along the fabric of every dress she came across. Alice would rather walk directly to the section of the store where the dresses they were looking for were found, or better yet, ask someone for help. She wanted to speed this along. Gwen Ann was not to be rushed though. She eyed and fingered dresses much too shiny and much too embellished (hopefully those are too embellished was Alice’s silent plea).
“Can I help you?” asked a store clerk. She was wearing a tight burgundy pantsuit, stiletto heels and an ingenuous smile.
“Wedding dress shopping!” Gwen Ann crowed.
“Wonderful,” said the clerk, “When is the happy occasion?”
“June 12,” said Gwen Ann in a sing song voice. “June is the month for weddings!”
“Perfect,” said the clerk.
“Yes, perfect,” Gwen Ann agreed.
“Perfect,” said Alice, under her breath, falling in line behind the other two.
The clerk eyed Alice, “I’m guessing a size 12-14?”
“Heaven’s no!” Gwen Ann gaped, “Size 4!”
The clerk raised her perfectly arched eyebrows and stared at Alice.
“It’s not for me,” Alice said bitterly.
Gwen Ann’s laughter rolled out of her, sounding to Alice like fingernails on a chalkboard.
“I’m the bride,” Gwen Ann said, “Not my daughter!” She collapsed against the store clerk, helplessly laughing.
"Oh! Well, what are you looking for in a dress and where will you be getting married? By the way, my name is Camille," said the clerk as she led us into a dressing room.
"I want to look like a princess. I want it sparkly and poofy and I want to feel wonderful in it. It's really going to be the centerpiece of our wedding. We're getting married in Napa on a hill overlooking a vineyard at sunset."
"Are you sure you want a princess style dress for a vineyard wedding? A lot of our brides go with a more flowy dress for outdoor weddings," said Camille.
Plus, you're too old for a princess dress with rhinestones and tulle thought Alice but decided she'd keep that tidbit to herself.
"Oh yes, I want a princess dress. We are renewing our vows and the first time I got married it was in an A-line dress with lace overlay which was all the rage in the seventies but now I want something princessy and over the top. You may only get married once, but you can fix everything that went wrong the first time when you renew your vows. Since Alice may never get married, this is my chance to plan a wedding."
I love how she always brings that up no matter where we go or who we are talking too. We couldn't just come and try on dresses without mentioning my very single status thought Alice.
"Okay, well, just give me a minute to pull some gowns and then we'll try on some dresses," said Camille.
"Isn't this fun Alice?" asked Gwen Ann.
"If you consider fun as poking your eye out than yes this is fun," I replied. I had promised Dad I would be good but that last comment about my singleness had gotten me where it hurts. My mother gave me the look so I added, "Yes it's fun Mom." This seemed to appease her.
"Maybe we should have you try on some dresses too. You might meet the man of your dreams when your father and I renew our wedding vows and then you'd be ready with a dress when the time came. Wouldn't that be wonderful?
"No mother, that would not be wonderful. I know everyone coming to the wedding and most of them are your age. Did you want me to marry someone Daddy's age? Besides, it would be wasting the sales clerk's time. Let's just make this day about you," I replied.
"Okay, okay but there will be a few people from Daddy's work attending that even I don't know yet. There might be someone. I keep hoping there will be someone. Where is Camille with those dresses?"
"How about I go look for her and see if she needs any help?"
"That's a great idea, dear," said my mother.
It really was a great idea because my patience was wearing thin and she hadn't even tried on a dress yet. This was going to be a long day.
As I left the room, Camille was just rounding the corner so I took a seat outside the room to await the first princess gown that my 60 year old mother was about to try on. I realize that at the ripe old age of 39 my mother has given up on me marrying but does she really need a princess gown. Even the Queen of England has given up princess gowns at her age and she's royalty.
The door opened and my mother emerged. She could barely get the dress through the door. What was I going to say about a dress that made my mother look like a withered cake topper?
"Wow," was what came out, before I could stop myself. But my mother missed my true connotation.
"I know, right?! I feel amazing in this!" She twirled around, knocking over a few chairs in the process with the billowing bulk of her skirt. "I feel like a twenty-year-old fairy princess! Your father's going to love this!!" and she gave herself an exaggerated wink in the mirror, with a little shoulder shake.
Oh boy. Personally, I didn't think that anyone should feel like a twenty-year-old fairy princess, particularly my mother. And thinking about my father's reaction made me all squirmy inside. Sometimes I wished they would just act their age!
Camille emerged from the dressing room, inspecting her client for fit. "What do you think, Gwen Ann?" Clearly she wasn't going to issue her own opinion on the matter, but was waiting to go with whatever my mother said.
"I am in love with the skirt," my mother gushed. "It's so poofy and flouncy! I am just concerned about the details on the bodice. I don't think there's enough bling. I need a POW factor when I walk down that aisle!"
I groaned as I looked at the bodice, already encrusted in tiny sparkles and sequins. How much more POW could a dress contain?
A lot more, I was about to find out.
"I think I have just the dress for you," Camille said, steering Gwen Ann back into the dressing room. "Don't you worry, Honey. We'll have you decked out enough to shine from the other side of the planet!"
Fortunately my cell phone rang and I saw that it was the answering service for my office. “I’m on call,” I reminded my mother as I put the phone to my ear. “This is Dr. Hatcher.”
She scowled at me, but was soon so busy with Camille I thought I was in the clear. I wandered off to the far end of the store as I answered Mrs. Florentine’s questions about her overly-enthusiastic male/aloof female pair of beagles she was trying to breed.
I watched my mother from across the room, cringing at the styles she was trying on. I better wrap this call up and go save her from herself I thought.
“This is the one!” Gwen Ann proudly announced as I approached, her smile bright above the frothy combination of tulle, silk, and rhinestone. Camille had certainly delivered on her promise to bring the POW in a big way. My mother now resembled a glitzy bath puff. Camille stood nearby with a veil, ready to put an exclamation point on this declaration of a dress.
“Are you sure it’s a good idea to have that much bling on the dress at an outdoor wedding? You don’t want the sun’s reflection to blind your guests.”
My mom rolled her eyes at me. “When it’s the right one, you just know it Alice. You might learn that for yourself one day.”
Grrr. I had been going to try to talk her out of the dress, but maybe, as punishment, I should just let her wear what she wants, I thought.
“I know we talked about it and a wedding dress is a no-go for you, but Camille and I were chatting in the dressing room,” here my mother nodded conspiratorially at the assistant, “and I think we should get you a bridesmaid dress. How’d you like to be my maid of honor?”
I could only imagine what kind of dress my mother was picturing that would complement the poof ball she had just selected for herself. My eyes swept the possibilities running along the entire east side of the store. There were several that would work, but overall this could be risky.
“Wow, Mom. I’m flattered,” My brain scurried for an excuse not to be up in front of everybody at the ceremony. “Isn’t Aunt Vi going to be your maid of honor like the first time around? I don’t want to take her place. She’s flying in from Sacramento, right? She loves this kind of thing.” My brain spun on, continuing to look for excuses. “Anyway, I was just going to wear that same dress I wore to Stan and Monica’s wedding last summer. It’s purple. Or close to purple. Purplish. One of your wedding colors.” I mentioned that last little tidbit like a peace offering as I backed away.
“Oh, Vi,” my Mom grimaced and then gave a pained smile. “Bless her heart, I never would have chosen her in the first place, she was just available. Besides, renewing our vows is a chance to get it all right this time.”
“But,” I countered, “don’t you think it would be more authentic if the same crew were up in front of everybody? I mean, I know Dad and Barry don’t really talk to each other anymore, but isn’t he going to be the best man?”
She smirked at my comment. “Well honey,” Gwen Ann laughed and continued, “if you want the original group up in front of everybody, then you better be up on that stage with us too. I guess you just shot yourself in the foot there, Missy.” My mom wagged her finger at me and turned to admire herself in the mirror and sighed happily. “That A-line dress may have hidden everything back in the day, but I’ll finally get to have my dream dress this time around.”
I was still processing my mother’s logic in having me in the wedding party when she started up again.
“I can’t believe your Grandma Hatcher made us all lie about the dates for so long when everybody knew. I don’t know who she was trying to protect. Funny we still don’t talk about it. I mean, the woman’s been dead for ten years.”
I stood stock still except for my rapidly blinking eyes, pounding heart, and whirring mind. I’m 39. This is their 40th. Whew, it still all adds up. Wait a second, wasn’t their anniversary in December? Why are they renewing in June anyway? Did they get married in ’72? No ’73. If I’m 39, then it was ’74. Wait, that doesn’t add up either. Why won’t my brain work?!
She continued to turn back and forth in front of the mirror, her back to me. “I’d always dreamed about a June wedding and then we had to get married right after Christmas. That’s not the season for weddings. Everything was so rushed. All the stuff I’d dreamed about for my wedding since I was a little girl never happened.” Gwen Ann turned and smiled while shrugging her shoulders. “I thought I’d get a second chance to plan a wedding when you . . . well . . . someday maybe, still . . .” she trailed off.
“Anyway, I finally decided to seize the day. What’s stopping me from doing it right this time? And do you know the really amazing part? This time I know your dad is in it for the love and not just because he had to. Makes it special, you know?” She turned back to the mirror and continued to admire her reflection. “So Alice, honey, how old were you when you figured out the truth anyway? Heaven knows your love life may need a jump start, but thank goodness you’ve always been the smarty-pants in the family. I bet you weren’t very old when you put the pieces together.”
So many pieces were sifting around inside Alice’s mind, reforming the mental picture of her life. Suddenly, so much made sense. Like the comments Grandma Hatcher made at each family get together about her mom and dad trading in degrees for diapers; or why Alice’s parents had had to pay for their own wedding: or how she was adamant about Alice finishing college before getting married and starting a family. There’s time enough for all of that. You keep your nose in those books and your pants zipped. Boys like brains and beauty, she would joke. Alice had always assumed she was just eager to see her oldest grandchild be the first one in the family to graduate from college.
Now the truth was obvious, Grandma Hatcher wanted Alice to have the life she thought her daughter should have had. That’s why she filled her head with stories, and questions, and dreams bigger than the sky, and why she had such a strained relationship with Gwen Ann. Grandma Hatcher was the one that encouraged Alice to apply for veterinary school and even paid for most of her tuition. She and Alice had a way with animals. Gwen Ann must have hated that her mom not only bonded with Alice in a way she never had, but also paid for Alice’s education when she had refused to pay for her own daughter’s wedding all those years ago.
Alice stood in front of her mom slack jawed with the instant realization that both of these women had been living vicariously through her for her entire life. It explained why her mom was desperately disappointed in Alice’s single status and why she was so obsessed with recreating this event in her life. Forty years later, Alice was ready to unhitch the double-wide trailer she drug behind her, full of guilt and disappointment.
Alice wasn’t sure if she should feel sorry for her mom and Grandma, or angry she had been manipulated for so long. She felt an unsettling awareness that every major decision she had made up until this point, was a direct result of their influence, and she found herself wondering if she would have been the one trying on dresses if she had chosen a path they had not paved for her.
She had so many questions and wanted to stay livid, but as Gwen Ann twirled like giddy new bride, Ann saw her eccentric mom in a whole new light.
That night Alice couldn’t sleep. She couldn’t stop thinking about the revelations of the day. Why hadn’t she ever pieced the truth together? Why had she let herself be directed through life by the twin but opposing forces of her mother and grandmother?
Finally Alice gave up on sleep. She walked to the kitchen for a glass of water. As she stood at the sink, she stared at her reflection in the darkened window. “Who am I?” she thought. “I’m a vet because my grandma wanted me to be. I’m ‘smart’ because she told me I had to be. I’m a disappointment because my mother has told me that over and over. But who am I?”
She went into her living room and sunk into her supremely comfortable sofa. “I like this sofa,” she thought. “I bought it on my own. I picked it out.” It was a little ridiculous but it made her feel surprisingly comforted. Gazing around the room, she surveyed her belongings. She decided which ones were “her” and which ones were influenced by others, namely her mother and grandmother. She went to the closet and pulled out a big garbage bag. She started throwing things in it. She tossed in the lamp her mother had discarded and given to her. It made a satisfying crunch as the glass hit the floor. She threw in books and the ugly afghan her grandmother had knitted that didn’t match anywhere so it had been given to Alice. When she was finally done, the room looked better. “It is more me,” she said aloud. She felt a bit of sinking guilt when she saw the big garbage bag but before she could lose her courage, she threw a coat on over her pajamas, slipped on some shoes and took it outside to leave by the curb.
No one knew what had happened to Alice, but something had. She declined invitations where before she never had. She took a pottery class then a photography class but told her mother she really wasn’t that interested in either, she was just experimenting. “I think she’s gone crazy,” Gwen Ann confided in her husband.
“But she seems really happy,” he pointed out.
“Crazy people usually do,” Gwen Ann said.
The most amazing thing Alice did was quit her job at the Animal Hospital. “I don’t think I ever enjoyed being a vet,” she told her parents.
For the first time in Alice’s memory, Gwen Ann was speechless. “Then what are you going to do?” she sputtered.
“I’m not sure,” Alice said, “I have quite a bit of money saved and I’m going to travel and try to decide.”
Tim caught his breath when he saw the woman walk on the plane. There was a light in her eyes, almost a sparkle, that mesmerized him. She must be about his age but she seemed younger somehow, like she was looking at everything with fresh eyes. He couldn’t stop watching her as she walked down the aisle.
He couldn’t believe his luck when she sat in the seat next to him.
“Hello,” she said, extending her hand, “I’m Alice.”