Why I Took My 14-Year-Old Wedding Dress Shopping

A mom takes her daughter on the trip of a lifetime: "What do you do when you glimpse a moment you will not live to see? Breathe, I told myself."

wedding dress shopping 14 year old daughteristock/AYOTOGRAPHY

My trip with my sister and my daughter from Palm Beach, Florida, to a Manhattan wedding gown shop, cannot be understood without further zooming into focus on Marina, my 14-year-old daughter I’ve asked to try on dresses.

Key word: fourteen.

A child.

An awkward, beautiful child.

This was the girl I took to Kleinfeld, the fancy store featured on the television program “Say Yes to the Dress.” As the trip approached, I asked Marina if she was excited. “Sure, Mom,” she’d say, shrugging. Marina was more enthused about getting a tattoo on her ankle to represent my fight with ALS than trying on $10,000 wedding gowns.

My sister, Stephanie, had arranged for a van with a wheelchair lift to drive us from the hotel to Kleinfeld. The van driver wheeled me in and strapped me down like Hannibal Lecter.

“I feel like I’m taking you to the dog pound!” Steph said, cracking up.

I laughed too. I knew if I started crying, I might never stop. At Kleinfeld, I was unloaded like a piece of cargo and rolled into a dream. Flower arrangements ten feet high. White grillwork on a Romeo-and-Juliet balcony. An ivory gown and a black tuxedo.

“Wow!” I said. I was wearing a new black outfit. Marina wore jean shorts, a sleeveless shirt, and sneakers. She stood with her hands crossed over her chest, like this was the last place on the planet she wanted to be. The kind Kleinfeld ladies pointed out rooms like practiced tour guides, naming off the designers on display. Alita Graham. Pnina Tornai. With Marina walking beside me, Stephanie pushed my chair up and down rows and rows of dresses, bedazzled gowns that made Princess Diana’s dress look modest.

Marina said not a word. We turned a corner into the storage room, where hundreds of dresses hung in plastic protector sleeves. Marina and I were overwhelmed.

“Want to try one on?” I slurred, touching Marina’s hand.

“OK,” Marina said in her squeaky, unsure voice.

“Tell them the style you’d like.”

Marina stood mute. I felt bad for bringing her. For foisting such an adult experience on a child. And crying, I knew, would only ramp that up a thousand times. So I held back.

Her fingers paralyzed by ALS, Spencer-Wendel typed her memoir on her phone using only her thumbs.Courtesy Susan Spencer-Wendel
Her fingers paralyzed by ALS, Spencer-Wendel typed her memoir on her phone using only her thumbs.

Marina had picked an A-line dress. Or, more precisely, the ladies of Kleinfeld had picked it for her. Marina was too stunned to do more than nod. As she took the gown into the dressing room, I tried not to think of my little girl on her wedding day or of her as a baby in my arms. I tried not to think of her with her own baby in her arms one day.

I tried not to think of Marina right now, embarrassed by her mother’s plans. By things she could not and should not yet understand.

I am leaving money in my will for Marina’s wedding dress. Stephanie has promised to bring her back to Kleinfeld to purchase it.

“No stark white!” I said to Stephanie. “Ivory. Not too much tulle. Think lace.”

“Think royalty when picking a dress,” I counseled Steph as we waited outside the dressing room. “Think Princess Kate. Sophisticated. Elegant. Think long sleeves. They make dresses more formal.”

Marina came out. Strapless. Flared. She looked like a 14-year-old girl in the middle of a giant cupcake, ready to tackle the quarterback.

“I don’t like poufy,” she said.

That’s my girl!

“How about trying on one with long sleeves?” I asked her.

The ladies brought out a dress with long lace sleeves, an Empire neckline, a ruched fitted waist, and a long, smooth silk skirt.

Marina disappeared into the dressing room. When the door opened, she looked a foot taller and a decade older. I could clearly see the beautiful woman she will be one day. I simply stared.

What do you do when you glimpse a moment you will not live to see?

I dipped my head. Breathe, I told myself. I looked up. I smiled. Marina smiled back.

I worked my tongue into position to speak. “I like it,” I said.

In that dress, Marina stood straight, radiant, and tall.

“You are beautiful,” I whispered, my tongue barely cooperating. I don’t know if she heard me. We took some photos. And moved on. A memory made.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest