11 lessons about love

There’s an old Jewish saying: “Every time a marriage takes place, a new world is created.”

After spending the last year at Becker’s Bridal in the tiny town of Fowler, Mich., I’ve seen a great many new worlds created. And I was moved again and again by the emotions I found concentrated in this one special place.

I came to this bridal shop to write a book, The Magic Room: A Story About the Love We Wish for Our Daughters. More than 100,000 brides have passed through the store since 1934, and I wanted to understand the feelings swelling up not just in the brides, but in their parents, too.

The book focuses on a small room at the store that has mirrors on every wall, designed to carry a bride’s image into infinity. It’s called “The Magic Room,” and with good reason. Brides and their parents routinely melt into tears, as they reflect on all the moments of their lives that led them to this room, this pedestal, this dress.

Here are 12 lessons about love that I learned by spending time with brides and their families in The Magic Room.

People needn’t be alive to show their love
Becker’s Bridal has been run by an unbroken family chain — a great-grandmother, grandmother, mother and daughter — for 78 years.

The store’s founder, Eva Becker, was a tough, unsentimental woman who 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. They say they feel Eva’s presence, almost as if she’s hovering around them.

As Shelley explains: “I’m grateful that it seems as if Grandma Eva is still here, helping Alyssa and me. 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.”

Feeling the love of the brides who came before her
By the front counter of Becker’s there’s a mirror in a weathered wooden frame. Since 1934, most every Becker’s bride has stood in front of it, usually with her mother looking over her shoulder. Some cultures think a mirror captures your soul, and Shelley, the store’s current owner, agrees. “I like to think that every bride who looks into that old mirror is connected to every bride who came before her,” she says.

Love begins as a solitary experience
Standing in the Magic Room, brides often think back to the wisdom shared by their mothers. One bride I met, Danielle DeVoe, had lost her mother when she was a teenager. She wished her mother could be with her as she shopped for a dress, but she felt buoyed by memories of her mother’s best advice.

Danielle’s mother was divorced after an abusive relationship. “I learned that you have to love yourself first,” her mother had told her. “You have to take care of yourself. You can’t love someone else until you love yourself.”

“I love myself,” Danielle said, and that had strengthened her love for her fiancé.

She wonders: What became of all those women who wiped away happy tears in front of this mirror? Which ones got divorced? Which brides lived to be old women, their marriages growing richer each year?

A few lived long enough to see great-grandchildren buy their dresses at Becker’s.

Some brides said they felt a boost from these women whose images remained embedded in that mirror — that in a way, maybe these brides from long ago were rooting for them.

A wedding is a form of optimism
In the Magic Room, many Becker’s brides spoke of overcoming challenges or losses. Some told me about parents who were terminally ill or fiancés who were unemployed. 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.

A wedding is a happy life-cycle event, yes, but the harsher life-cycle moments aren’t kept at bay until after the ceremony. Those 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.

Love isn’t about absolutes
I asked parents at Becker’s about advice they’d given their daughters. Most of it was well-meaning, rooted in experience. (“The best gift you can give your children is to love your spouse.” “It’s not about the dress, it’s about the marriage.”) Some admonitions, however, were too adamant. (“Never date a man who is prettier than you are, and never date a man who smells better than you do.” “Marry a man who loves you a little more than you love him.”)

The lesson many young women take from such advice: Never listen to a parent who speaks in absolutes.

Words aren’t necessary to say I love you
A pretty 29-year-old bride named Courtney Driskill explained that she was still recovering from rheumatic fever. She had spent most of her twenties sleeping 20 hours a day. To pay her insurance premiums, her mother had gotten a job at a local department store earning $6.75 an hour. Courtney would be tired and sick, curled up on her parents’ couch, and in her grogginess, she’d see her mother heading off to work on winter mornings.

As she entered the Magic Room, with her mother at her side, Courtney said, “There’s no one else I’d want to share this moment with.

Courtney ended up marrying a Marine drill sergeant with two children from a previous marriage. When I asked her to define the word “love,” she talked about her mother, helping men find ties and pants at JCPenny, day after day, using her entire salary to pay her insurance premiums. It was a daily, unspoken act of love.

Cherish the moment, because there are no guarantees
As parents helped their daughters search through the 2,500 dresses at Becker’s, many got wistful.

One father, Jack Pardo, found himself thinking about his older daughter who never got to wear a wedding dress. The older daughter had died at nine months old after falling off a diaper changing table.

“Your bring children into this world,” the father told me, “but you really don’t know how long they’ll be here. We don’t think about how many times we see stories in the newspaper about people who’ve lost children to accidents or illness. But these stories add up, while we’re living our lives, not noticing. You don’t know how long you’ll have your children to love.”

Love is worth the wait
In the Magic Room, I met Erika Hansen, a fresh-faced young bride who is a throwback to another time. As a child, she had vowed to save her first kiss for the man she’d marry. She kept this promise, as did her three sisters. They got the idea from a book in the Sierra Jensen Christian young adult series by writer Robin Gunn.

About 7% of the brides searching for gowns at Becker’s are pregnant, looking for a dress with room to expand. Another 25% already have children. In fact, one woman, shopping for her fourth wedding dress, told me, “I’m always the bride, never the bridesmaid.”

And so, given the state of the unions today, I was taken with the romantic Hansen sisters, each of whom had embraced the beauty in an uncommon patience. Their choice is not for everyone, but all of them found loving men who were willing to wait for something special.

Love can blossom from an open mind
Meredith Maitner, a 40-year-old first-time bride reflected on her long road to The Magic Room. There were many men who didn’t work out, and she assumed she’d be single forever. But she made a discovery about love. In her twenties, she had kept a list of qualities she wanted in a husband. She sought an athletic, manly, high-powered professional.

Two decades later, she ended up marrying a low-key artist who is a “foodie’ like her. “I came to realize,” she said, “that, most of all, I wanted someone to support me emotionally, to share a bowl of popcorn with. I wanted to do the dishes and look out the window and see him cutting the grass. I wanted someone who could make the good times better and the hard times not as hard. I know it’s corny, but I wanted someone to grow old with me.”

That long-ago list of “manly” traits is now just a curiosity.

There’s a lot of room in a person’s heart
In the Magic Room, I met Julie Wieber, a 45-year-old nurse whose first husband, Jeff, had died unexpectedly. Her children were very unhappy that she was remarrying, and there had been arguments about it. Julie’s new fiancé, Dean Schafer, was an autoworker.

“I’ll always love your dad,” Julie finally told her kids. “I love Dean, too, but he won’t go certain places in my heart that remain reserved only for your father. I’ve started a new place, a different place, in my heart for Dean.”

For his part, Dean told me that he knew Julie is still in love with her first husband. “Still is and always will be. But I’ve also figured out that Julie has an amazing capacity to love. She has a heart the size of the Grand Canyon. And so I’ve told her: ‘If I can have a little sliver of that heart of yours, you can keep the rest for Jeff.’”

Marriage is about believing in the possibilities
The Becker family is well aware of the high divorce rate. They know about the recent Pew Research study showing that 39% of Americans now believe that “marriage is becoming obsolete”; that’s up from 28% who felt that way in 1979.

And yet the Beckers continue to see the ways in which a wedding dress speaks to life’s possibilities.

“I still believe there’s magic in the institution of marriage,” says Shelley, “that’s why I come to work each day with a smile on my face.”

A bridal gown remains a symbol of hope.

Pictured: Julie and Dean

Jeffrey Zaslow is coauthor of the No. 1 bestseller The Last Lecture, now translated into 48 languages. His other bestsellers include The Girls from Ames, and as coauthor, Highest Duty with Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, and Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope, with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly. For more information, visit The Magic Room.

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