From the time our daughters are born, we can’t help but think about the men they might marry. We all have our laundry lists of qualities for potential sons-in-law – that they respect our daughters and provide for them, that they will deeply love our daughters and the children they raise together.
As an author and newspaper columnist writing about family issues, I’ve often heard from men who seem to know what love is all about, and they go beyond the clichés. When all of us think about the mates we want for our daughters, these are the sorts of men we envision.
I once asked readers to send me their definitions of love. One man replied with a story about a cruise he had taken years before. He was out on the ship’s deck, looking out at the ocean, when he spotted a school of dolphins.
“They were racing alongside the ship,” he told me, “against the backdrop of the most beautiful rainbow I had ever seen.”
So why did this scene define what love meant to him?
It’s because, even years later, when he thinks back to that breathtaking moment, he feels more sadness than happiness. “I’m sad,” he told me, “because my wife was not there to see it with me.”
That’s the sort of love we wish for our daughters. Men who will feel that way when our daughters are not with them.
I am the father of three young women, ages 22, 20 and 16, and they’ve had a great impact on my work as a writer. In each of my books, I’ve found myself searching for a sense of understanding about the love parents hope their daughters will find.
Again and again, I’ve seen how parents long to offer guidance. For instance, when I coauthored The Last Lecture with Randy Pausch, we spoke for hours about the lessons he wanted to leave for his three young children, especially his eighteen-month-old daughter Chloe. Randy was dying of pancreatic cancer, and he knew Chloe was unlikely to have any recollections of him. He wanted to leave her with simple, meaningful words. “Pound for pound,” he said, “the best advice I’ve ever heard is this: When it comes to men who are romantically interested in you, it’s really simple. Just ignore everything they say and only pay attention to what they do.”
For my most recent book, I wanted to find a way to write a nonfiction narrative about the love all of us wish for our daughters. The problem was that I needed a place to set the book, a place with great emotion. I considered all sorts of 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 visit a bridal shop. “There’s something about a wedding dress…” she said.
She was definitely on to something.
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. 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.
Becker’s is housed in a stone structure that was once a bank, and since 1934, more than 100,000 brides have made a pilgrimage here. 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 with mirrors 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 in the room, as they reflect on all the moments that led them here.
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.
Among the lessons I learned from brides and their parents:
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.
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.”) I thought about my own daughters, wary of insistent parenting. The lesson they’d take from such advice: Never listen to a parent who speaks in absolutes.
Love is best discovered face-to-face: One father–of-the-bride, Vic Hansen, told me that he had warned his daughter, Erika, about the limitations of courtship by computer. Young people today are too often alone in their bedrooms, texting and trading Facebook chatter. “When you’re sitting behind a computer there’s a veil of security,” he said. “Face to face there’s more vulnerability. If a guy is only pursuing you electronically and doesn’t want face time with you, ask yourself: Is this really a full relationship?”
Love is a form of optimism: The Becker family is well aware of the high divorce rate. They know about the recent Pew Research study showing that 39 percent of Americans now believe that “marriage is becoming obsolete.” And yet the Beckers told me they still see the possibilities of magic in the institution of marriage. There’s an old saying: “Every time a marriage takes place, a new world is created.” Spending time in the Magic Room, I met many nervous and excited brides embarking on their journeys to this new world.
Each of the brides had a story that had carried them to that dress, that room, that moment.
It was a privilege to share their lives in the book, and in doing so, to contemplate the love I wish for my own daughters.