The Dress

Morgan returned to the sparsely furnished “pink room” holding Katy’s wedding dress in the air, ensuring the tulle train wasn’t hitting the floor. Carefully she hung it on the rod, placing the veil next to it. Smiling, she turned to Katy and said, “It’s time to get your dress on. Ladies, everyone out except Katy and her mom.” My other three girls stood still, hesitating to follow her edict, but Morgan was gently insistent. A bit like a hen moving her chicks along, she whooshed them out into the hallway.

“I wanted this moment to be just you and me, Mom. I wasn’t sure if we’d get another time today when it was just us.”

I took the dress from its hanger, tulle spilling around my feet as I unzipped it, holding it for Katy to step into. I was aware of the other times I’d held this dress for her. There were fitting appointments, the day she tried it on at home, a time she was deciding if she wanted to keep it in the wake of a broken engagement, the day last summer when we returned to the bridal store where it had been purchased in search of a new veil. My hands seemed to be holding the story of the winding road she had walked to reach this day. I fastened the hooks on the inside of the dress and zipped it up, just as I had done in the past. And then I began to slip the nearly thirty buttons through their loops one by one for the first time. This task had always been saved for today, her wedding day, and I felt the tears pool in my eyes as I worked my way down the back of her dress.

Neither of us spoke any words; they simply weren’t needed. I imagine I would certainly have felt tearful six years ago, but today my tears were not for my firstborn baby girl…they were for the woman my daughter has become. I wasn’t mourning the sense that she was leaving us—that happened years ago as she forged her life as a single woman. Today my tears were honoring the tenacious hope and fierce faith that weathered the loss, the death, and the resurrection that brought her to this moment.

There was a minute we looked into one another’s eyes, tearful and smiling. I hugged her tight just as Morgan knocked on the door—time to start the photographs.

I didn’t become a mother the day Katy was born. It has taken a lot of years for me to sink down into myself and discover the nurture and kindness and presence that are necessary to embody the fullness of being a mother. The examples of good mothers I had in front of me were mostly women wanting to raise “godly” children—teaching them first-time obedience, Scripture memory, discipling them, and imbedding the importance of purity, responsibility, and integrity. Turns out those things have very little to do with what it actually means to mother well. I was good at executing knowable things and checking those godly mother boxes.

Becoming a mother has been far more about walking to the edge of what I can know and stepping by faith into the unknown.

I think my kids have felt most loved by me when I have been able to offer them my arms, and my heart, when there haven’t been clear answers. Holding them and protecting them when everything felt unknowable and undone. And I had to be able to be with myself in those kind of spaces before I could be with my children in them.

As I slipped the satin-covered buttons through the loops on the back of the dress, my mind moved through moments with Katy. Snowy nights when the world felt cold and she was alone. Summer days at Lake Michigan when the sky was bright blue and anything felt possible. Standing in the Beqaa Valley holding the pain and hopelessness of young Syrian refugee mothers when she knew she wanted to use her writing to help change the world. The sound of her voice the night she called to say that she and Aaron were dating again. 

Mothers remember. Mothers hold pain and hope and faith when their children are too weary and too tired to carry them. Mothers say yes to dreams, yes to hope, yes to more.

For me, mothering well has come from remembering and returning to my own stories, the ones where I needed to be held in the midst of unknowable, undone things. Finding the ten-year-old girl who first knew loss and death; listening to her; and letting the tender parts of her come back. She held the keys to the nurture, kindness, and welcome that have grown me into a good mother.

DSC_0512Tracy Johnson is a lover of stories, a reluctant dreamer, and the Founder of Red Tent Living. Married for over 34 years, she is mother to five kids and a pastor’s wife. She loves quiet mornings with hot coffee, rich conversations, and slowly savored meals at her favorite restaurants. She is awed that God chose her to mother four girls having grown up with no sisters. She writes about her life and her work here.