There's a very old saying: "Every time a marriage takes place, a new world is created."
In 2012, does this sound impossibly quaint? Does it sound naïvely romantic?
We all know about the odds of divorce today. We've seen how little the marriage vows can mean in the Kardashian age. Indeed, a recent Pew Research poll shows that 39 percent of Americans now believe marriage is becoming "obsolete." That's up from 28 percent who felt that way in 1979.
And yet, at a small-town bridal shop in the American Midwest, I found reasons for hope -- and I found a measure of magic.
As a journalist and the father of three girls, I set out last year to write a nonfiction book reflecting on the love we all wish for our daughters. I recognized that I needed a place to set the book, a place with great emotion. I considered many possibilities. Maybe I'd visit maternity wards, dance studios, daddy-daughter date nights, or spas where mothers and daughters go to bond. But then my wife suggested I find a bridal shop. Maybe that would be a place to set my story. "There's something about a wedding dress..." she said.
I was willing to go anywhere in the country to find the right store and the right stories. My search ended in the tiny, one-stoplight town of Fowler, Mich., a place with just 1,100 residents -- and 2,500 wedding dresses. The town believes it has more bridal gowns per capita than anywhere in the United States.
Fowler is home to Becker's Bridal, a 77-year-old institution on Main Street. It's been run for all those years by the same family -- a great-grandmother, grandmother, mother and daughter.
The store is housed in a stone structure that was once a bank, and since 1934, more than 100,000 brides have made a pilgrimage there. After they select the dress they think might be "the one," they're invited to step inside what used to be the old bank vault. A ten-foot-by-eight-foot space on the second floor, with mirrors designed to carry a bride's image into infinity, it's called "The Magic Room," and with good reason.
Brides and their mothers routinely melt into tears in the Magic Room, as they reflect on all the moments that led them to that dress, that room, that moment. Fathers are sometimes overcome with emotions, too. They excuse themselves and head out for a walk on Main Street, where they can be seeing wiping their eyes and blowing their noses.
And so I set out to write a book about the brides who've stepped into that special space. The book is titled The Magic Room: A Story About the Love We Wish for Our Daughters. There were many moments of magic that I discovered during my time at Becker's Bridal. Among them:
Brides are connected to each other: By the front counter at Becker's, there is a large, 90-year-old mirror in a weathered wooden frame. The mirror has been in the store since the first dress was sold in 1934. Most every Becker's bride has stood in front of it, usually with her mother looking over her shoulder.
Some cultures think that a mirror captures your soul, and the Becker family believes it, too. Shelley Becker Mueller, the current owner of the store, believes mirrors are a reflection of the past; after we look at them, our spirits remain there with everyone else. When tourists walk through Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home in Virginia, they stand in front of a mirror used by Jefferson himself; their souls mix with his. In the same way, every Becker's bride who looks in the store's old mirror is connected to every bride who came before her. Every mother-of-the-bride communes with all the mothers before her. Every father with all the fathers.
Wedding dresses can talk: As a little girl in the early 1970s, Shelley would come to Becker's Bridal to watch her mother and grandmother sell dresses. Hiding behind a rack of dresses, watching the customers, Shelley began to see that brides had a sense of destiny when it came to their selection of a dress. Again and again she heard brides say that a dress had "talked" to them. Talked to them? They meant that a dress had announced itself as "the one," somehow calling out from its place on the rack in a voice only the bride could hear.
Shelley did wonder about these "talking dresses," which always seemed pretty silent to her. But in time she came to understand the power of a wedding dress.
A bridal gown can be a kind of life preserver: Many Becker's brides spoke of overcoming challenges or losses. Some told me about parents who were terminally ill or fiancés who were unemployed and seriously depressed. The store's staffers have helped brides with cancer find dresses that will cover their scars and the ports in their chests. They've found gowns for brides in wheelchairs, sliding dresses over their heads.
They've served plenty of happy, giddy brides, but they've also heard the muffled sounds of brides crying in dressing rooms, and wondered about the source of the tears.
I came to realize: A wedding is a happy life-cycle event, yes, but harsher life-cycle moments aren't kept at bay until after the ceremony. These moments keep coming, without warning, reminding brides that they can plan a wedding, but not how their lives will unfold.
Weddings are often optimistic islands surrounded by oceans of uncertainty, loneliness and grief. For some women, a bridal gown can feel like a life preserver.
A step onto a pedestal is a step back in time: Women told me again and again that they were surprised by the thoughts that came into their heads as they approached the Magic Room. Some brides said they flashed back to the days they played dress-up as little girls; they instantly regressed to age eight or nine. The brides' mothers had flashbacks, too. Usually, of course, they thought of the day they first saw themselves in their own wedding dresses. But they also had more wistful thoughts. They remembered the words their late parents said to them when they tried on their dresses. Or they thought of fiancés who loved them once, but turned into husbands who no longer wanted to be married to them.
People needn't be alive to show their love: The founder of Becker's Bridal, Eva Becker, was a tough, unsentimental woman who, starting in 1934, got brides into dresses like a drill sergeant. She ran the business to sell dresses, not to talk about love or romance. She was never the type to say "I love you" to anyone.
Eva died in 1975, and her granddaughter, Shelley, and great-granddaughter, Alyssa, now run the store together. Still, they say they feel Eva's presence there, almost as if she's hovering around them.
As Shelley explained to me: "I'm grateful that it seems as if Grandma Eva is still here, helping Alyssa and me run Becker's. I feel like she's showing her love now, through all her energy in the store. Sometimes when people are alive, they can't fully show the love they're feeling. Maybe for some people, like Grandma Eva, their love somehow comes afterward."
Magic is in the mind: When I first drove to Becker's Bridal, I was aware only that the store was a popular stop for brides-to-be from central Michigan. I didn't know its history. I knew nothing about the family that ran it. I certainly didn't know about The Magic Room.
But on the very first day I visited Becker's, I truly sensed that this was a place that could illuminate the most poignant aspects of a woman's journey to the altar. So many families were absolutely open to the possibilities of magic when they arrived there. And so I knew that the story I wanted to tell about all our daughters was there -- in the walls, in the mirrors, on the racks, and especially in that small, simple room at the top of the stairs.