Until you've made your first foray into a Southern bridal salon at the age of 43, you do not know the meaning of raw courage.

Until you've made your first foray into a Southern bridal salon at the age of 43, you do not know the meaning of raw courage. Teensy boutique or sprawling emporium, it made no difference. I was met with the same polite smile, the same incredulous stare, the same question: "And are–you–the bride?" I fantasized about a truly wicked reply: "Yes, I am the bride. Do you think Medicare will cover my veil?"

As Alabama brides go, I was what you might call remedial. It's not that I was against marriage–I just never assumed it would happen to me. So, unlike the more nuptially knowledgeable women in my circle, I had not been studying bridal magazines since I was 14. I had no pictures of elegant upsweeps to show my hairdresser, no cohesive vision for my makeup. 

I had naively stumbled through life never realizing that, one day, I would have to make what any bridal consultant will tell you are life-altering decisions: Sheath or ball gown? Strapless or cap sleeve? V-neck or scoop? White, off-white, soft white, snow white, ivory, candlelight, cream, cashmere, morning mist, or petal pink?

As for the underpinnings, er, undergarments, don't even get me started. The Tennessee-Tombigee Waterway has less complicated engineering than the stuff they wanted me to squeeze into. "This will make it easier to walk in your gown," the consultant promised. I'm not sure a crinoline hoop skirt attached to a girdle can make anything easier, but what do I know?

After foolishly flying solo at a salon, I called for reinforcements, and my friend Amanda was at the ready with succint, honest critiques for every gown. I can only imagine what we must've sounded like to the women in the next fitting room: "Too poufy. Too Tara. Are you kidding me? Okay, that one's pretty. Stop kicking at the train like a mule!"

Later, Amanda and I went to a mega-salon with my parents in tow. That's when I realized the power of the dress. It didn't matter that I was a 43-year-old, gainfully employed, mortgage-paying adult. When Mama and Daddy saw me in a wedding dress for the first time, the look on their faces was pure magic. Our little girl's getting married!

Together, my parents, my dear friend, and I did indeed find my dream dress that day. It was simple–no hoop skirt, no veil. It had delicate lace that reminded me of the kind of beautiful antique linens that my Aunt Vivian and I have always loved. In that dress, I felt entirely bridal, perhaps even worthy of the Gorham silver pattern I had registered for–Buttercup, just like Aunt Vivian.

I've been married for almost two years now. The dress has been cleaned, preserved, and tucked away at my parents' house. Now and again, I survey the framed family pictures that my husband and I have in our living room. And I always come back to one of my favorites. It's a black-and-white shot of me in my wedding dress, walking barefoot down my grandmother's old dirt driveway. I pick it up. I remember. And I smile.