While my friend Judith tried on dresses, I watched the brides. There were six of them in the tiny wedding boutique. The brides had brought mothers and friends to help sort through the racks of silk and chiffon. The gowns billowed as the brides carried them to the dressing rooms, yards of promise held aloft by young arms and hope. We friends and mothers gathered on the floral armchairs and watched as, one by one, the brides climbed to the single stool in the middle of the room like awkward birds of paradise taking turns on a mirrored perch. My friend Judith was the reason I was sitting here instead of hanging out on the playground with Dan and our four children on this bright September Saturday afternoon. "This is the place where you and I will both find perfect wedding dresses," she had crowed as we pulled up to the shop. "I feel it in my bones!"
Amazingly, Judith's determined use of online dating services had led her into the arms of a man she wanted to marry. I was getting married to Dan in four weeks. The fact that we were both, as she loved to say, "betrothed," should have brought us together. But I was feeling increasingly isolated. This was Judith's first wedding and my second. Plus, my backyard ceremony would include our four children -- Maya, Taylor, Blaise and Drew were 5, 6, 7 and 8 years old -- so Dan and I had invited their friends as well as ours to celebrate the creation of our new family. Of our 96 guests, half were going to be children. Our crowd ranged in age from three months to 91 years old.
I hung back as Judith plunged into the racks and started trying on dresses -- all of them white and strapless to show off her toned arms and slim waist. She giggled along with the other brides as the sales clerks pinned dresses here and lifted hems there to give every bride the perfect princess fit.
I'd never felt so old. I was 39, old enough to be the mother of some of these brides. In fact, I was a mother. I didn't belong here.
Judith made me try on four gowns, each dress worse than the last. "I can't wear a dress that I can't zip up by myself," I declared. "And I don't want to wear something that I'll trip on when I have to go upstairs to help the kids get dressed."
"What's the matter with you?" she grumped on our way back to the car. "You're not even excited about trying on dresses! You act like you don't even want to get married."
Was that true? I loved Dan with all my heart. Yet, the reality of my approaching marriage was getting on my nerves. I kept wiggling it like a sore tooth, poking at it in places that I knew would hurt. Getting married with children meant that the details of domestic life -- the school lunches, the laundry, the mortgage, the car repairs, the holidays -- would swell around us like a river of responsibility with unseen rapids. We would surely be swept away from each other.
"Well?" Judith demanded. "Do you want to get married or not?"
"I do," I said, taking a deep breath, but I couldn't say any more. Just practicing those two words aloud had sapped the last of my courage.
A week before the wedding, I finally bought a wedding dress. It was red. Not fire engine red, but a deep red lace the color of a pricey claret draped over an even deeper red satin. The neckline was low but not too slutty for a mother to wear, and the skirt moved so easily with me that I could imagine grocery shopping in it -- a possibility that I did not exclude from my imaginings of what might really happen on my wedding day. (With four children, you never knew when you might run out of milk.) As an added plus, the dress was on sale; I paid less than $50 for it.
Our daughters, both fashionistas who changed their outfits three or four times daily at the ripe ages of 5 and 6, were horrified by the sight of my dress swaying brazenly on its hanger.
"But it's red," my daughter Taylor wailed. "Brides should wear white!"
"It's true. You don't look like you're getting married," Dan's daughter, Maya, agreed mournfully.
It was such a rare thing, having these two girls agree -- our daughters sometimes played well together, but couldn't seem to get past the idea that neither was the only girl in her family any more -- that I momentarily thought of returning the dress and getting a white one to make them happy. I still had a whole week left to shop!
But no. Our wedding was the start of a different sort of life for both Dan and me, I reminded myself. We wanted to be in a marriage where we could be truer to ourselves than we had been in our previous relationships. I finally hit on the perfect solution. "How would you two like to wear the white dresses?" I offered.
The girls were ecstatic. By some miracle, the week before the wedding I found two matching white dresses with full skirts and lacy underskirts. We bought matching white Mary Janes, too. Oh, and veils. The girls wanted headbands with veils, and I found them in a costume shop for less than $10 each.
As the girls dressed for the wedding, they asked if they could use their dresses to play in afterward. I said yes, why not, and they immediately started arguing.
"I should be the princess bride when we play, because I'm older," Taylor asserted. "Besides, you're just the stepsister."
"You're a stepsister, too," Maya reminded her. "Besides, in stories the real princess bride is always the youngest."
I left them to it and went to put on my red dress, worrying about how it would turn out for our daughters. Would they grow up to tell their friends about the special day when they first became sisters and each gained a new brother? Or would the arguments escalate, until by their teens they scarcely spoke, and in the end they wouldn't even attend each other's weddings?
I shuddered. There are so many unknowns when you marry. But, when you marry with children, these unknowns spool out into infinity.
It had started to rain early that morning, a light drizzle from a pewter sky. Luckily, we had ordered tents for the backyard. The rain added to the beauty of it, as the tents caught a kaleidoscope of falling leaves, like handmade Japanese paper in a complex geometric pattern of reds, oranges, and yellows.
At any wedding, being the bride means that you're in a fugue state of anxiety. You know less about what's going on than anyone else there. I do know there were the usual last-minute crises. Our boys refused to put on their neckties and scratchy jackets; they wanted to wear their black Ninja Turtle t-shirts. "We want a Ninja wedding!" they cried, karate chopping each other.
Dan finally coerced them into their suits by bribing them with $5 each. Twenty minutes later, Dan insulted my mother when he banished her from our bedroom as we were getting dressed.
"But she's the bride," Mom said. "You're not supposed to see her before the ceremony. It's bad luck!"
"Yes," Dan said, not unkindly. "But this is my bedroom, and I need to get dressed."
I kissed him, impressed that he would have the courage to stand up to my mother -- few men did -- but I worried about bad luck just the same.
As we stood in front of the minister beneath the tents, I tensed my shoulders as we got to the part where we had to read the vows we'd written for each other. My vows seemed lame in front of this crowd of well-wishers. My children, the people dearest to my heart, stood next to me, and Dan's children, their faces pale and expectant, stood next to him. What were we doing, bringing these children together when they really had no say in the matter? What right did we have to turn their young lives upside down forever?
Just then, our dog - a white American Eskimo named Ben, who the girls had adorned with a deep red bow to match my dress - wandered up the aisle to stand with us. Everyone, even the minister, started to laugh as Ben wagged his tail and tipped his snout up in the air - sniffing the lamb kabobs the caterers were grilling, no doubt - and I suddenly felt an overwhelming love for everyone there: Dan and our children, our family who had traveled so far to be with us, and the furry, benevolent presence of this white dog. I said my vows.
During the reception, our sons, having kept up their end of the bargain and earned their $5, tore off their ties and suit jackets and wore their t-shirts. My grandmother and her two sisters, all three of them in their eighties, sang, "Let Me Call You Sweetheart!" And our children danced together with their friends -- the chicken dance, the hamster dance, and the Macarena -- between nibbling on treats in the separate children's tent.
Dan and I danced with our daughters on our wedding day, too, holding their hands as their white skirts billowed around them, our girls like two tiny, giggling brides just beginning to learn about love.