There were only two white dresses that ever would matter, her mother said. The first of these was the Debutante Dress that Jerilyn would wear when she would take her father’s arm and march across the stage in Raleigh, into the single spotlight, radiant, along with all the other debs in North Carolina.
As of last week, the suspense concerning that dress had been extinguished, when Jerilyn and her pals from Mecklenburg Country Day, Bethany and Mallory, besieged uptown formal shops to hunt down their quarry, capturing and releasing, debating, embracing, denouncing many white gowns before claiming the perfectly flattering one as their own. Jerilyn suffered an hour of agony as she prayed that her more assertive friends would not fall in love with the beautiful number on the mannequin near the cashier’s station as she had. The crinkled taffeta, treated with some French-termed process, so smooth, like petting a puppy, had an internal corset, mermaid tail, subtle beading that sparkled opalescent around the slimming bodice, all blooming out upon layer upon layer of tulle, soft and dreamy. Wearing it would defy gravity; to walk into the light would be like floating in on a tulle cloud, something right out of an antebellum cotillion, which would please her father. He did his best to remain in that world before 1860: Duke Johnston, descendant of Civil War General Joseph E. Johnston.
Even though the debut was a year off, she had an impulse to take the gown with her to university, let it hang in her Chapel Hill closet so she might look in on it, stroke and adore it, have it as a beacon before her. But the gown was so wide at the bottom, and surely dorm room closets were tiny and who knows what could happen to it there, when it would be safe and sound right here at home.
The second white gown, the Bridal Gown, was thought of solemnly; it would involve years of decision-making. It was, really, a life’s work. Jerilyn and her female contemporaries, having just graduated high school, had already put in reverent hours with scores of bridal magazines, begun the opinionated window-shopping, attended the society weddings like dress rehearsals for one’s own event, notes mentally taken, good things memorized so they might be borrowed or varied, atrocities eschewed. The decision about that gown, mercifully, could wait some years hence.
When she’d brought up the issue of a showstopper wedding dress with her mother, she was cautioned to whoa the horses. “You’ll do something, I would hope, with your future Carolina degree,” her mother reasoned. “Enjoy your independence. Work for a few years before you see which of the young men you met at Carolina seems destined for something besides his parents’ basement. Or, given the atmosphere at Carolina, rehab.”
Even though Jerilyn’s mother was her hero—Jerene Jarvis Johnston, director of the Jarvis Trust for American Art at the Mint Museum, respected matriarch of one of Charlotte’s first families—and her mother was almost, almost her best friend … her mother did not understand everything. Jerilyn would be very happy to find a husband quickly at Carolina and begin fomenting wedding plans no later than her senior year. She did not yearn to be part of a workplace, never failing to be somewhere for a set time in the morning, nor did she care to learn what it was to balance checkbooks and be frugal; she felt her life would be quite fine without those improving, self-revealing years of sacrifice starting at the bottom rung of something. She wanted (1) to be married in four years, (2) move soon into a beautiful home, (3) babies soon after.
Copyright © 2013 by Wilton Barnhardt
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