We Were Moving. Should I Hang On To My Wedding Dress?
The tough decision I finally had to make.
The dress was standing in a garment box in our bedroom, awaiting its fate. White, satin and once resplendent, the gown now hung faded and ignored in a plastic garment bag with a tear at the top.
My husband and I were moving out of the house where we had raised our kids and into an apartment in Manhattan. I did not know what this old wedding dress’s future would be. Should I take it with us? Give it away? Try and sell it?
It had a sweetheart neckline and was 29 years old. Who would want it? And yet … this wedding dress had a history. I could not abandon it so quickly. The wardrobe box was as big as I was. The moving company said it would not charge us if I took the gown out and moved it myself.
My mother took me shopping for a wedding gown in the spring of 1993 in what was then known as the bridal building. I tried on multiple dresses and settled on this one. It had no ruffles or embroidery; it was flattering and floor-length. It was a sample size, so cost $800.
We had also been to Vera Wang, where we had tried on dresses that cost triple that amount. A childhood friend, whose father had sold his business, had had her wedding dress custom made at Vera Wang for $10,000 — what my mother called “the price of a car.” Our family finances were not in that category, but I still coveted a dress that was custom-made and overpriced.
My practical mother had other ideas. “Buy this dress and grandma will give money to put toward your china,” she advised. “You’ll only wear that wedding dress once, but you’ll use the china for the rest of your life.”
She was right. Almost 30 years later, we have used our wedding china multiple times; my wedding dress has spent the last few decades in the dark corner of a closet in my office, next to my two favorite maternity dresses and the swingy black-and-white dress from Bonwit Teller I wore to my high school graduation party — the last event my parents hosted together.
By then, their marriage was in tatters; a few weeks after the party, my father moved out. My mother had left the previous summer but moved back home so that she could be there while I filled out college applications. My parents spent the next few decades cycling through long-term living arrangements, engagements and marriages to other people.
My parents married young and impetuously; they met in London one summer and were engaged within weeks. My father was cruel to my mother early on but instead of looking at the flag he was waving and realizing it was red, she decided it was blush pink.
I went through a series of crappy relationships in my 20s. With the help of a competent therapist, by the time my boyfriend and I moved in together I felt sane enough (and lucky enough) to feel sure he was the one.
And here I was, decades later, wondering what to do with that wedding dress. Maybe my friends who were coming to help us pack would know what to do: One was a rabbi and two were therapists. The rabbi, bless her, spent the day helping my older son pack up his room; she said her mother had given her dress away. My sister-in-law — therapist number 1 — so expertly packed up our wedding china that I forgot to ask her about her wedding dress.
When I texted her, she wrote: “My mom lent it to someone and I think they altered it, and I never saw it again.”
Therapist number 2 came to help box up books. She thought her wedding dress might be in a box in her attic. I decided to drive my wedding dress over to my mother’s for safekeeping. A few days after I dropped it off, we stood together in her kitchen. “You’re probably going to write about this, aren’t you?” my mother said. “Because I tried it on?”
“Yes,” I said. “Probably. Yes.”
My mother and I have a complicated history. My father doted on me when I was a kid, but when I became a teenager, he became verbally abusive. He was especially explosive at the dinner table. I tried to defend my mother, younger brother and myself from his tirades but battling my father was like standing in a thunderstorm, holding a tiny, broken umbrella. My father was a successful radiologist. My mother should have left him years before she did, but she had been married once before, to another doctor, and didn’t want to end this second marriage. By the time she did, we were all a little bit broken.
There’s also the incident of my mother wearing my veil and trying on my wedding dress without telling me. My sister-in-law had lent me her veil. My fiancé and I were living in a small apartment in New York City and didn’t have room for the wedding dress or veil so I left both hanging in the closet of my childhood bedroom. Shortly before my wedding, I went to my mother’s house and discovered black gunk on the veil. I asked my mother what had happened. She said she had been wearing the veil around her office. We tried to get the gunk off; our efforts left holes in the white tulle.
Shortly after the wedding, I was rifling through my mother’s jewelry box. There was a Polaroid picture of her standing in my wedding dress. Her boyfriend must have taken it, whether before or after the wedding, I wasn’t sure.
A year after my husband and I got married, my mother married that boyfriend — a handsome, charismatic politician. He had left his wife for her.
One day, he walked into my dining room while I was pulling out some platters. “Don’t you know I’m in love with you?” my stepfather asked. I had no idea what to say to him, so said nothing.
For years, I tried to reconcile my mother’s attraction to successful, difficult men with the havoc they wreaked on our family. My mother’s father was a gentle man who adored her. I don’t think she had any idea what it was like to grow up in a household dominated by verbal violence or to head off a pass from a stepfather. I have always been envious of how lucky she was, to have a loving father and no stepparents to navigate.
And yet, she has been generous to me. She paid for my wedding when my father refused. She has been a devoted grandmother to my children and is kind to my husband. I love her. After chatting in the kitchen, my mother and I walked upstairs to my old bedroom. My dress was still in its big white bag, hanging over the desk chair. “I haven’t had a chance to hang it up yet,” my mother said. “Look, it fell off its hanger.”
My father and stepfather are long dead. My mother still lives in the same house she shared with each of them. Here I was again asking her to do me a favor: Store my wedding dress (and a whole bunch of other junk). And she was willing.
The night my husband and I moved out of our house, I slept in my old bedroom — on my narrow trundle bed. My husband slept in my brother’s room down the hall. I took my wedding dress and went to hang it in my closet. There, I saw the simple, sleeveless, cotton, yellow tailored wedding dress my mother had worn to marry my father. I hung mine next to hers.