I took the huge cardboard box down from the attic. It was the first time in decades that I’d really looked at it, even though we’d moved it several times, even though I had always known exactly where it was: behind the Halloween costumes, next to the sole surviving box of craft supplies.
The box was covered in insulation dust and even a little mold, that being the old-house Problem of the Week that necessitated its evacuation from the attic in the first place. I had to hug it awkwardly as I descended the attic steps, to keep it from flopping open like a giant book; the flimsy string which had once held it together now failed in its duties. From the front of the book-box a woman of no particular age gazed at me coyly over her shoulder; she was line-drawn in a 1950s style that made me wonder if she had been stuck in the box even longer than its 1980s contents. An oversized and outdated script on the front (maybe the woman had written it?) stated the obvious about its contents: Your Wedding Dress.
More than 30 years ago, while I was on my honeymoon, my mother had taken the dress to be cleaned and preserved, its puffed sleeves stuffed with tissue, the plastic around it not to be disturbed. Even when my girls were little and pleaded to open it, to see and touch a real, live wedding dress, I’d never intruded, too afraid to offend the mysterious, magical box that ensured its eternal well-being.
My wedding planning had taken place in the year before Martha Stewart published her book Weddings, which is to say, the year Weddings really became a thing; the capitalization kind of says it all. In the days before then, there were fewer choices on everything, so planning was pretty simple; neither the internet nor wedding planners had been invented yet. You simply did it yourself, choosing between the available options, with your mother’s help, while you worked your day job.
Wedding cakes were tiered affairs, topped off with some figural representation of the happy couple. (Martha’s use of fresh flowers for a topper was considered a real game-changer). Invitations ranged from white to ecru. Grooms had their choice of tuxedos or cutaway morning coats. Bridesmaids all wore the same dress, hemmed to the same distance from the floor, with shoes dyed to match. Brides did not “Say Yes to the Dress” so much as yes to their mothers, who advised them on the proper way to do things, and to their fathers, who were footing the bill.
Comparing those to today’s nuptials, depicted in HGTV shows in which brides compare and critique the details of Four Weddings to determine a “winner” and Kleinfeld’s associates all but get down on one knee as they beg Bridezilla for an answer (Yes?? Are you Saying Yes to the Dress??) makes me feel a bit like the lady on the box: more dated than might be expected, the distance in time between now and then suddenly seeming to have doubled. (How long have I been in the box? Note to self: Look coyly over shoulder and point out something obvious. Maybe no one will notice.)
And while not all of these changes might be regarded as progress, simpler events in simpler times can pale in comparison to the elaborate Weddings of today, enhanced by internet shopping, lifestyle blogs, and the magic of Pinterest. A dress that you chose at 21 might, like the flimsy string, fail over time, both in its duties and in its vow that you will love and cherish it all the days of your life. You might look at the pictures and, even as you remember how much you loved it that day, wish now that you’d chosen something else. Something that didn’t seem to emphasize how small and young you were, something less shiny (Oh God, is that satin?? What was I thinking??) and without so much girly lace. Something that looked – and made you look – more knowledgeable, worldly, a little more grown up.
And yet, as I lifted it out of the box after all these years, everything changed between the dress and me. My old self was as smitten as my younger self had been; I couldn’t stop touching it, looking at it. I kept standing back to cock my head and look, and return in secret to stare, as if gazing at a long-lost friend.
She was more beautiful than I had remembered. The bodice lace was lovely, possessing a detail and depth that I’d not realized or maybe just not remembered from her youth. In person, the skirt was not at all shiny, not satin, but a silk shantung with a rich sheen, luscious to the eye and the touch. Neither my memory or the photos had done the dress justice, in the box all that time.
Of course, now that the dress was out of the box, I couldn’t resist trying it on: would it – could it? – possibly fit, after four babies, breast surgery, menopause? In a day already full of surprises, it did sort of fit, if you didn’t count the last inch or two of zipper. I wondered if I could truthfully say that my wedding dress still fit, in light of a zipper stalled on a form changed by cancer. Did that still count? Could this body, reconstructed as it was, even be considered the same one? Was I even the same person? It was hard to say.
The thread in the bodice lace had yellowed the slightest bit with age, but that seemed only to gently emphasize the lovely and intricate twists and turns of the lace; it still held firm. And as I smoothed the skirt with my aging, wrinkled hands, I recognized the motion as exactly the one that my chubbier, unlined ones would have done the last time I wore it, a lifetime ago. I guessed that we were both more or less the same.
Being in the dress was like being in a time machine, one that made it easy to remember how grown up I had felt at 21, even though that seemed now I realized, with something dangerously close to a cringe, not at all old enough to be making such important decisions. I’d gone into marriage all jacked up (and not like the Kleinfeld’s people mean it) on love and dreams and optimism and commitment, but surely not enough life experience to choose a once-in-a-lifetime dress, much less a mate; I didn’t even know that much about the other options. I knew nothing of how dresses and people and love might age. I couldn’t possibly know then – how can any of us? – how it would all turn out, how things might seem decades later, when the time came that you had to look – really look – at and in the box.
And that is how I found my middle-aged and long-married self in the improbable position of saying Yes to the Dress: not like in the show, what with the expectant entourage, princess tears, and budget-busting extravagance, but in a quiet way more like conversations I have had with tearful families of old ladies admitted to the ICU. Yes. I’ll take good care of her now, I promise. Yes, she is very old, but I can see that she is still beautiful. I see it when I look at her in person, when I touch her sleeve, when I cock my head and really look for a minute, take in her loveliness. She has been around for a lifetime, and perhaps there have been times in that lifetime that she was trapped in a box, and the only thing she could think to do was to write simple messages in huge letters, for everyone to see, about the things that were on the inside. But her essence is the same as it ever was; the thread may be yellowed around the twists and turns, but it holds firm. I’ll take care of her now, I promise.
Maybe there comes a time when you can’t really know what is true just by looking at the photos, by remembering it the same way you always have. Maybe you have to open the box, staying to gaze for a long minute, and maybe even in secret, as if at an old friend. To look anew at your choice, made a lifetime ago, and see it with your old but new eyes, touch it with your old but new hands. Even put your whole entire changed, grown-up, present-day self in it as best you can, to see if it still holds you, see if it still fits.
Maybe this is the only way to see that even though you were very young, you somehow made an excellent choice, one that has aged well, that you love today. One that has stood the test of time.
And to say, very quietly, Yes.