Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared in Walter Magazine.
Maybe it wasn’t the starring role, but she did have 27 lines. She’d won the comic relief. And in middle school – as for the rest of life that comes after – that’s something worth owning, I explained to my eighth-grade daughter.
The production was “Androcles and the Lion,” set in Caesar’s Rome as a tragicomedy and meditation on the nature of love. My girl Paris was to play Diana, abducted on her wedding day by slave traders. In character, she had a free pass to hysteria; plus, while other slaves wore dirty togas, she could weep and wail in gown and veil.
Two days before showtime, she wrestled a wrinkled mountain of cheap white satin to the kitchen. “My costume is gigantic and the zipper needs to be replaced,” she fretted.
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I studied the ensemble and its actress, this changeling who shimmers between child and woman, about to take the stage in so many ways. The dress would not do, and we both knew it.
“Try mine,” I said.
My proposal widened her blue eyes in shock. “Your wedding dress?”
Hanging in its pink plastic bag for 20 years, the gown had never been properly preserved. For me, it was love at first sight, but I’d zipped it away without expectation. Our marriage has blessed us with four children, three of them daughters, now 14, 11, and 6. My wedding dress has already resided in three attics. Who knows what will happen by the time any of our girls is old enough to consider marriage?
The things we do for love. Weddings have become such a form of entertainment, a genre of reality TV that infatuates young female viewers, my daughter included. These shows exploit traditions, especially the mother-daughter dress selection, to near hysteria. It’s big-girl dress up, Paris says. I worry about the message that love and marriage are nothing more than something to try on.
In the middle of my kitchen and the middle of my life, I realized I could accept the role of the mother who let her daughter wear her wedding dress to the middle-school play.
How fitting. How funny.
“Yes,” I said.
We say, “I do” in marriage vows, and are taught from childhood that, for better and for worse, love’s language is rooted in the word “yes.” Enough time in any loving relationship reveals that love is often expressed in bounds and limits. In commitments.
Lately, my days are filled with denials to the people I love most. No, you cannot go there at that hour, buy that jacket, see that concert, have that toy. And, heartbreakingly, even to my mother, whom we moved to a nursing home two months ago. No, you can’t go back home. No, Mom, I cannot care for you myself.
It felt so good to say yes. We took the dress from the cedar closet. Paris had tried it on once before, when she was 5 or 6. This year she has grown as tall as I am. The lace bodice and silk skirt suddenly fit in all the important places. She tore down the stairs to our bedroom, to show her father.
“Look what I’m wearing in the play, Dad!”
My husband’s gaze traveled from her to me, past to present, and he started to chuckle. “I love it!” he said.
Just then, Josephine clomped out of our closet in an old oversized Easter dress and a pair of my high-heeled satin evening shoes. Our youngest girl has just lost a tooth, rules kindergarten, and possesses a keen sense of comic timing. She strode past Paris toward the full-length mirror to get a better view of herself.
“I do just what I like. And what I like,” she declared, “is to look pretty.”
She sent us into a fit of giggles, herself most of all.
My husband sighed. “I knew a girl just like that – married her.”
The nature of love
Our wedding was full of mishaps that have made for sweet, funny stories our kids find so entertaining: how his cat vomited on my silk wedding shoes the night before; the retired monsignors saw no need to rehearse the ceremony and then left out half of it; Big Lou, the Greek grandfather arriving late because he misplaced his wallet in his shoe; the pouring rain. A true romantic comedy, it was a portent to the crazy, hilarious love story we have lived together since, and so much better than any fantasy I might have imagined.
Our Paris is a romantic soul. She witnesses daily the workings of a happy, healthy marriage, often critiquing with a teenager’s fascination and sarcasm. She and I engage in an ongoing conversational meditation on the nature of love: how to seek love, to recognize when it is real, how to handle love, show love, return or reject love without breaking another’s heart.
I am forever telling her when the time comes, to look for someone whom she respects and loves and wants, but somebody with whom she can laugh. It’s the ring of laughter through the years that signifies love’s bond, the real gold that gets you through good times and bad.
At her age, this talk is theory, but the best way to teach love, I know, isn’t in what to say. It’s how to act.
The play opened with the Shirelles’ song, “Mama Said.” Stereotypes worthy of reality television paraded the stage: overbearing mothers-in-law, shrewish wives, bumbling husbands. The hysterical bride, caterwauling and falling over backwards in the billowing silk, earned laughter and applause. Love won.
Afterward in the lobby, friends and family swarmed, complimenting her acting skills, admiring her costume. I had asked Paris to let me take her to the nursing home to visit Grammy after the play. Without hesitation, she’d said yes.
We drove across the city in the dark. Afire from her performance, she chattered the whole trip. “Did you like it? How’d I do? Was I funny? Do you think I made the audience laugh? Oh, it was SO amazing! I had the best time!
“I felt pretty in your dress,” she told me. “Thank you for letting me wear it. I hope you had as much fun in it as I did.”
“Oh, I did,” I assured her. “But in some ways, this is even better.”
We slipped through the facility’s side-door night entrance. Paris looked almost ghostly floating down the low-lit hallways. My mother was waiting up. A romantic, funny woman herself, she is 87, and until this autumn, until one fall, lived happily independently. Two surgeries realigned the broken bones but could not reverse time. She had to give up driving and walking. It’s been no honeymoon, she likes to say.
She gasped with delight, held her face up to Paris, like a child, to be kissed, then insisted we take a late-night spin to show off her granddaughter.
‘An act of true love’
Paris held her hand as I pushed her wheelchair down the hallways, past the medical equipment parked outside the doors. Most of the residents were in bed or asleep. Nearly all were elderly women who, not so long ago, must have been hopeful brides.
My parents were married 50 years before my father died. They celebrated by renewing their vows, and my brothers and I threw them a swank reception. It was so unlike their original wedding during World War II. Because my father wasn’t Catholic then, they couldn’t have a church wedding. The ceremony was performed in the priest’s house, and Mom – at 19, only five years older than Paris is now – was forbidden to wear a wedding dress.
Their only daughter, I was born 23 years into their marriage. By the time I was planning my wedding, my father was steadily losing his long war with cancer. Once, my mother and I left the hospital to go dress shopping, but we simply didn’t have the heart for it. I found the dress later, by myself, when he was doing better.
Maybe that’s why I’m not as traditionally sentimental about weddings and dresses, yet so very passionate when it comes to love. The sight of Paris and my mother made me cry. “Love is patient, love is kind” begins one of the favored Bible passages recited in vows. Paris was all that and more with her grandmother. It was an act of true love on my daughter’s part.
Back in the car, she hitched up the dress and rested her red high-top sneakers on the dash. “Hey, will you take me for a milkshake?” she asked. “I’m SO hungry, and after all, it is my wedding day”
Again I got to say yes, and it felt so good.
Mary E. Miller is a former columnist for the News & Observer. On Wednesday, she and Bob Geolas celebrated their 20th anniversary. Rosemary Miller is adjusting to life at Hillside. On Friday, she and Pete Miller would have celebrated their 69th anniversary. And Paris Geolas is now a freshman at Millbrook High School.