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I Said Yes to the Dressand Faced My Past

The Daily Beast’s Tessa Miller has been searching for the perfect wedding dress. It has been a blur of satin and tulle—and it also revived dark memories of a troubled family life.

I never wanted to get married. Marriage, in my family at least, seems heartbreakingly stupid. So how the hell did I find myself in Bergdorf Goodmans bridal salon contemplating lace vs. tulle, sleeves vs. strapless?

Im getting married on Oct. 9, 2016. Being Type A, I have the whole thing planned and its, as of writing, 322 days away. Ive saved 394 photos of wedding dresses, tried on 16, and purchased one.

My dad died full of pain, regret, and anger, and my mom is still so ashamed and traumatized that she barely speaks of it.

Ive seen gowns traditional and non-traditional, plain and patterned, matronly and youthful. I guess Im something of an expert nowbut I never expected to be. And I never anticipated that searching for a dress that Ill wear one time would bring back memories of the hardest kind.


There is no way I can adequately describe the resolve he showed in our darkest hour. And theres something romantic about sharing microbiota, no?

After sucking out each others souls for almost 30 years, they divorced when I was 12. My mom remarried when I was 18. My dad died when I was 20.

My dads mother, Edith, married his father, John, and birthed three babies, only to have her husband drop dead of a heart attack at 34.

Later, she married Elwin (Doc), the only grandfather Ive ever had. He slowly shattered after she died of lung cancer in 2007. In tears, he once told me that my grandmother had so much grace, she moved like a movie star. Colon cancer took Doc a few years later.

My maternal grandmother, Irma, married my grandfather, Walter, at 17 (!). They met at some sort of community dance. He escorted her home in the rain, and to prevent her from ruining her shoes, he carried her to the door. Irma lost Walter six kids later to lung cancer.

We laughed hysterically at a dress that made me look like a Pilgrim showgirl, and another that she nicknamed the Idaho potato. It felt like I was trying on dresses with a kooky aunt.

On the day she found out he was terminally ill, she had a heart attack and spent days in intensive care. (My grandmother went on to live a long life full of grandkids and peach cobbler and Salem 100 cigarettes. She died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 87.)

My mom and dad got married at 22 and 24, respectively, after several years of long-distance dating. Dating then meant actual phone calls and lettershundreds of handwritten letters and cards that my sister and I found while cleaning out my dads apartment.

Its weird to read a bunch of love notes between people who you can only remember hating each other. Its even weirder that he kept them for 40 years.

From what I understand, my grandparents didnt want my parents to live together in sin, so they married in Doc and Edies living room on Christmas Eve, 1976.

My moms dress cost $150 and was made from polyester that disintegrated over time. She once told me that she thought about backing out on the day of the wedding. I wonder how her life would have been differentbetter, maybeif she had.

My parents marriage wasnt always bad, but I cant remember it being good. By the time I hit junior high, my dads alcoholism had cost him his career in academia, so he holed up in a locked room binge drinking all day and nightonly emerging to terrorize us.

He called my teenage sister a whore, smacked my mom in the face, kicked our dog, threw dinner plates into the backyard. Hed sometimes disappear for days or weeks at a time, leaving us to wonder if he was alive.

Then hed sober up for a while, maybe even start taking antidepressants. Hed become the guy who played basketball in the driveway, went on 20-mile bike rides, devoured books, meditated, helped with math homework, taught me about reggae and jazz. My dad wasnt a bad man, but he was very, very sick.

The last time I saw my parents together was July of 2001. My sister had escaped our home by then, and my mom had rented an apartment in preparation of leaving with me.

We tried to quietly gather our things from the house, but my dad emerged from his room in a fury, attacking my mom as we tried to flee. Eyes crazed and un-human, he called her a cunt (I later looked up what this word meant because Id never heard it before; I was 12 years old, after all) and threw her car keys across the yard as we scrambled into the Mitsubishi and locked the doors.

We waited until he withdrew back inside, and I tore across the yard to grab the keys. He was arrested later that night.

My parents never spoke again.


He came to the hospital every chance he couldsometimes several times a dayeven when I didnt have the energy to speak or open my eyes. My appetite was nonexistent but I violently craved root beer; N would bring me multiple bottles and different brands to try each day.

My mom came from Illinois and stayed for three weeks to care for me. Since I lived at the hospital, she and N were essentially roommatessharing meals and working out schedules to walk our dogs, get groceries, and do laundry.

Under normal circumstances, my mother and boyfriend living together would be terrifying, but these were anything but normal. It was actually comforting to know they had each other.

After months of navigating the maddening hospital system, a doctor at Columbia agreed to give me a fecal transplant (FMT)a lifesaving procedure that cures C diff 98 percent of the time. (I had a FMT in 2013 after five months of recurrent C diffit eradicated the infection in 48 hours. I wrote about that in depth here.)

With my life on the line, I needed a stool donor pronto. To cure C diff, doctors take the stool of a healthy personfull of good bacteriaand transplant it mixed with saline, via colonoscopy, into the gut of the sick person.

The good bacteria repopulate the gut, overtaking the deadly bacteria. Its a simple idea, really, one that dates back centuries.

N volunteered without hesitation, going through the rigorous testing process to get approved. He collected and boxed up his own shit not one but three times, once for testing and twice for the transplants.

When I was well enough to come home in June, he helped me bathe, dress, eat, and take medicine. He combed my hair because I was too weak, did the household chores, took me to doctors appointments and Remicade infusions, and ran all of my errands. Did I mention N has two jobs on top of being a musician?

There is no way I can adequately describe the resolve he showed in our darkest hour. And theres something romantic about sharing microbiota, no?

Step Three: Get engaged.

This is the easy part. After you realize youre going to live, youll probably start thinking about your future and a lot of other heavy stuff.

If you love someone, you might realize you dont ever want to be away from him or her. Buy a ring if thats what youre into, say some nice stuff about each other, and change your Facebook status to Engaged.

Maybe post to Instagram, too. Rake in those likes. You wont get this many until you get a puppy or have a baby, so soak it in.

If you dont want or cant afford a ring, dont let the Wedding Industrial Complex make you believe its necessary. A ring is fun to show off, but it wont change how you feel about your partner.

Step Four: Dont lose your mind.

After youre officially engaged, youll start exploring the hellish underground that is the Wedding Internet. The Wedding Internet likes to focus on THE DRESS, and youll be overwhelmed by what bridal blogs call the most important thing youll EVER. WEAR. IN. YOUR. FEMALE. LIFE!!!!!!!

Its not. The tank top I bought for $9 and wore to a Neil Young concert where my dad cried is more important. The high school volleyball sweatshirt I had on when my niece was born is more memorable. The flannel shirt I repeatedly steal from my fianc makes me feel more at home.

Dont lose your mind over what is, at the end of the day, just a dress.

Step Five: Start a Pinterest.

Its a hotbed for Mormon mommy bloggers who name their kids Heavyn, but its also really convenient for saving photos of dresses, finding silhouettes or details you might like, getting familiar with designers, and wrapping your head around a budget.

Screenshotting pictures on your phone or saving links in an email draft (my original plan) will only make your head explode, so save yourself the trouble and starting pinning. Ugh, I said pinning.

Step Six: Set a budget.

Set a realistic attire budget (8-10 percent of your overall wedding budget is reasonable), and most importantly, stick to it. You will see dresses you love that are twice what you can afford.

Do not try them on, even for fun. With help from the Internet, you can usually find a stores base price. Do not even go to a store with a base price above your budgetit will only disappoint you and make you sad, which is what they want. Resist!

Seek out sample sales, trunk shows, or stores that are going out of business. I tried on a stunning hand-beaded Naeem Khan gown, for example, that was 50 percent off because the boutique was closing.

Look online for second-hand dresses or, even better, never-before-worn gowns from brides who changed their minds (or their partners), or from stores directly.

Sometimes they list out-of-season or discounted dresses on websites like Tradesy. Etsy is also a goldmine for affordable new and vintage gowns.

If you decide to order a dress online, be sure to take your bodys measurements so that you dont buy something unwearable, and factor in the height of your shoes when you measure for length.

Most importantly, find a professional tailor. They can work magic. (Count tailoring into your budget as it can get expensive!)

Step Seven: Make appointments at several stores and decide who youll bring with you.

I watched a lot of Say Yes to the Dress while in the hospital high on opiates, so I blame the hydromorphone for making me think I just had to go to Kleinfeld Bridal even though department stores give me hives.

With my sister at my side, I arrived there for a 4:30 appointment. There were hysterical brides, mothers of brides, and bridesmaids everywhere. I was instantly itchy.

Our consultant appeared at 4:45, looking frazzled, and rushed us into a poorly lit dressing room. She asked me three or four questions before disappearing into the stock room (at Kleinfeld, you arent allowed to choose the dresses you try on; even browsing the racks is discouraged).

I hated everything my consultant chose except a Temperley with a beaded, short-sleeved top and draped bottom, which she was trying to sell me hard. We were out of there in an hour.


Ah, the sweet heaven that is Bergdorf Goodman.

The lighting is low, shoes and clothes are displayed in individual rooms like museum objects, and theres a bar. A bar!

The bridal salon is small and quiet and the perfect palette of cream, blush, and gold. My consultant handed us champagne immediately and asked a bunch of questions while taking copious notes.

She helped me browse the racks, explaining the designers, the fabrics, even the production process. This woman was clearly a pro.

I picked a handful of gowns to try on: a long-sleeved Oscar de la Renta ball gown that weighed at least 20 pounds, a layered tulle Monique Lhuillier with subtle beading, a matte satin Austin Scarlett with a trumpet skirt, an Ines Di Santo with oatmeal-colored details and a high neckline, and a strapless Reem Acra with layers of vintage lace and intricate Art Deco details. (I wont say which one I chose because N might read this and Im suddenly superstitious. Sorry!)

My consultant was hilariously honest, which some people might not appreciate but I loved.

We laughed hysterically at a dress that made me look like a Pilgrim showgirl, and another that she nicknamed the Idaho potato. It felt like I was trying on dresses with a kooky aunt.

I knew immediately which one was THE DRESS, but I didnt cry. My sister did, and my consultant couldnt stop raving about it. It was one of the least expensive dresses I tried and she gave me a discount and a free veil, so Im confident she wasnt in it for the commission.

Even my mom, who says she isnt the mother of the bride type, teared up when I sent her photos. That was sign enough for me.

So, I didnt cry. But I laughed. I twirled. I felt beautiful, comfortable, and most importantly, like myself.

Step Eight: I repeat: Dont lose your mind.

The wedding industry makes billions$86 billion, according to the Library of Congresson perfection. You will, at some point, feel like you need to buy hair extensions, get Botox, and lose 20 pounds to look decent in a wedding dress.

The underlying message of that, of course, is that you arent worthy of love or marriage without completely changing yourself. Grooms, on the other hand, are required to show up.

Even after you find THE DRESS, you might second-guess how you look in it. Its beautiful, but imagine how it would look with (fill in the blank: narrower hips, larger breasts, unmarked skin)! Dont play this game. Youll always lose.

Step Nine: Stop looking.

Even after youve found and paid for (gulp) your dream dress, youll be tempted to keep looking around.

Youll probably see a gown or two that will make you second-guess the one you chose. As hard as it is to put on blinders, try your best. Unfollow designers or boutiques on Instagram. Throw away your bridal magazines. Burn your mood board. Focus on how you felt in your dress.

And for gods sake, stop pinning.

Step Ten: Let it go.

As much as you fight it, your emotions will get tangled up in those swaths of crinoline and chiffon. Youll find yourself thinking about your dead dad and how he cant walk you down the aisle, when you should be considering bustles.

You might get misty-eyed remembering a photograph of your teenage grandmother on her wedding day, and youll have to pretend youre crying for your own happiness.

A glimpse of yourself in a gown might make you wonder if someday, you and your partner will hate each other, too.

Breathe. Commitment is a mysterious, hard thing, one that we jump into without really knowing what were doing. You cant face an impending marriage without thinking, at least a little bit, about your family history and the relationships youre succeeding.

But at the end of the day, dont forget: its just a dress.

Floral design: Maidenkind
Hair/Makeup: Angela Bosworth
Dress: Maggie Soterro

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