I had to look right at this wedding, no matter the price
Tova: Our lives are busy, and this is the option that works for us.
Penina: Don’t you understand that what’s perfect for you is a disaster for me?
When Chezky’s brother got engaged, I was excited and so happy for him... and also completely overwhelmed. All I could think of was what happened last year, when my brother got married. The costs. The time. The stress. Outfitting myself and my kids, traveling, making sheva brachos, it all cost money. And taking off work was a total nightmare, my boss still hasn’t stopped mentioning it. All in all, a massive simchah — and a massive strain on the married siblings.
“What are we going to do?” I asked Chezky, when we finally had a chance to sit down and talk. “I get a headache just thinking about it all... and there’s Penina next, she’s for sure in shidduchim already, we could have another wedding within the year. How can we even afford it all?”
“Hey, we’re not making the wedding, you know,” Chezky said lightly. I could tell he was a little upset, this was his brother’s simchah after all. I changed tracks.
“I know, I know, and this is amazing, I’m so happy for Aharon and the kallah is really sweet. It’s just the practicalities… remember making sheva brachos last year? And the girls will need gowns, I’ll need something to wear, plus the hairdresser and the shoes and all the bits and pieces...”
“And taking off work, the aufruf, Shabbos sheva brachos, I know.” Chezky drummed his fingers on the table. “I know, Tovs, but listen, what can we do? Tell your boss it’s a sibling’s wedding, he has a family, he knows what it’s like. Besides, you know they can’t afford to let you go.” He winked.
It wasn’t the point, though. I hated having to ask for more time off, endure the interrogation, and then suffer through the negativity for months afterward. I wish I could explain to my boss that I didn’t want to keep taking time off. I just didn’t have a choice in the matter.
When I spoke to my sisters-in-law later in the week, I was happy to hear that they were on the same page as me.
“We have to keep the sheva brachos simple,” Brocha told me. “I know, this is major and so exciting and everything, but frankly, we just can’t afford to spend a lot right now, you know?”
I knew too well. Brocha has a bunch of little kids, my brother-in-law learns in kollel, and they barely made ends meet. We weren’t well-off by any stretch of the imagination, but compared to Brocha’s situation, we were doing well. Of course she couldn’t afford to blow a few hundred dollars on a one-night event.
Dassy was more concerned about the gowns than the sheva brachos. She has five girls, and even gemach rentals added up. “And then there’s me, I can’t turn up to this chasunah in the gown I wore to Brocha’s wedding six years ago,” she said. “It’s a hassle, finding something that fits, and matches the color scheme, and doesn’t break the bank... and then there’s the sheitel and the makeup and the jewelry and the shoes. I wish people would realize what a strain the wedding is on the chassan’s and kallah’s siblings.”
We commiserated for a while, then got practical. “We may as well divide up the work,” I told my sisters-in-law. “If we need to coordinate gowns anyway, let’s each check out one gemach, and we’ll see if there’s anything promising that comes in enough sizes and stock for all of us.”
Brocha’s neighbor down the block had recently opened a gemach with nearly new gowns that she’d lend for a minimal charge, so she went to check those options out first. She called me literally a few minutes later, bubbling over with excitement.
“Tova, I found the perfect gowns,” she gushed. “Gorgeous, champagne color, almost brand new – they were only worn once – custom made too, they are sooo stunning, you can’t imagine! She has about ten of them, they’re all the same color and material, but each design is slightly different. There was one that fit me perfectly, and I bet you and Dassy will find ones that you like, too. My neighbor said she’ll hold them for us for a week. You think you’ll get a chance to come down here and try them on?”
I made a quick calculation. It was a busy week, I had a ton of deadlines, Yossi had a dentist appointment, and I needed to take Chayala for new shoes. But this sounded like a dream opportunity, not something to be passed up.
“Send me her number, and I’ll make it work,” I told Brocha.
I squeezed in the gemach appointment later that week, leaving Chezky holding down the fort, a bunch of kids screaming in the background, dishes piling up, and a work deadline creeping uncomfortably close. But according to Brocha, these gowns were too good to pass up.
She was right; I saw as soon as I went inside. The champagne gowns were beautiful, the fabric shimmery and comfortable, the designs coordinating but each unique. There were a couple of options in my size, and I made a tentative reservation for the one I liked better. So now it was up to Dassy to come down and see if one of the remaining gowns would work for her.
“And what about Penina?” Brocha asked, when I called to thank her.
“Oh, right, that’s true, Penina will want to coordinate as well, right?” Duh, I thought after asking. Penina was my in-laws’ only daughter, after the four boys, for sure she would want to fit in with the rest of us. “You wanna call her and tell her about them?”
Brocha hesitated. “Were there any… you know, in her size?”
I bit my lip. Penina wasn’t heavy, exactly, but she wasn’t particularly thin. The gowns had been mostly smaller sizes, which worked for the three of us sisters-in-law, but…
“I think one or two were larger sizes, maybe one of the plainer gowns,” I said, trying to remember. “But you know what, she could totally take it and embellish it herself… she might even prefer it that way, customize it a little. I think there’ll be one that fits. Let’s give her the number of the gemach.”
Dassy was in touch a few days later. The gowns were great, the price amazing, and guess what – she’d found cream bridesmaid dresses with gold stitching for all the girls, it would coordinate perfectly. Another huge headache off our heads – yay!
“What about Penina, has she seen them yet?” I asked Dassy. She had no idea, so I made a mental note to call Brocha. I didn’t get a chance that night – between cleaning up the kitchen and Sruli coming down with some virus and my neighbor’s daughter getting engaged, which meant getting dressed and made up and running over to the l’chayim, there wasn’t a split second to breathe – but the next morning, she texted me.
Can you call me, re the gowns? Bit of a problem.
I don’t usually make personal phone calls during work – it’s another one of the boss’s pet peeves – but this time, I couldn’t handle the tension.
“What happened with the gowns?” I asked Brocha as soon as she picked up the phone. “I thought she was gonna hold them for us… were we too late in deciding?” A tinge of panic crept into my tone. We were all sorted, the price was so reasonable, everyone matched, the kids set to go… maybe it had all been too good to be true?
“No, no, my neighbor’s fine with it, she’s reserved the ones we wanted,” Brocha said. “It’s just, well, Penina wasn’t happy with the ones they had in her size. She wants to buy a gown, maybe get one custom-made.”
I exhaled. “Oh, gosh, you had me nervous a minute there,” I told Brocha. “So Penina wants to get her own thing, fine, she can go ahead with the greatest of pleasure! I can’t afford to buy or get a gown made, but she’s more than welcome to as far as I’m concerned. Why should it be a problem for us?”
“Because,” Brocha said, her voice small. “She’s absolutely refusing to go with champagne. Apparently she’s found something in teal, or she has this idea of getting something made in a particular shade, and she wants us to look for something in that color range instead.”
As the oldest daughter-in-law, it figured that I would end up being the one to speak to Ma, and try get the facts straight. And apparently, we were at a stalemate.
“Penina found a beautiful dress online, and she’s getting it altered completely, putting in long sleeves, you know how these things go,” Ma said. She lowered her voice confidentially. “Look, it’s not so easy on Penina, she’s in shidduchim and she’s sensitive about her looks… I know the three of you found something at a gemach, but it would be so nice if you could have a look for something that coordinates, you know, teal, blue, turquoise… I’m sure there’s plenty of nice options.”
Plenty of nice options? Well, maybe, but who was going to take off work to go look for them? Try them on? Pay the difference in price if they were more expensive – and they were bound to be, the champagne ones were a steal of a deal at the gemach? What about if they needed alterations, or didn’t have in one of our sizes…?
I mumbled something about speaking to the others and hung up the phone. But the more I thought about it, the more upset I was at the thought of starting from scratch and trying to twist ourselves into pretzels to match Penina’s brand-new, custom-altered piece. She could afford it, we couldn’t.
Dassy and Brocha were on the same page.
“Even if we find new gowns, who said they’ll be the same shade, the colors could easily look wrong together,” Dassy said sensibly. “Plus we have the gold and cream dresses for the girls, and we’ve paid the deposit. If we’re all in blue, they won’t match either.”
“If she doesn’t like the gemach ones, fine, but then get in champagne, I’m done with the hassle here,” Brocha added, sounding harried. She was the most upset; she’d been the one to do the scouting, set us all up with the gemach appointments, and coordinated with her neighbor to keep the champagne gowns reserved for us until we’d made a decision.
“If they would pay the difference, I would try make it work,” I said slowly, thinking of what Ma had said about Penina feeling bad. “But fact is, that’s not on the cards for us. So I’m not sure there’s really any choice in the matter.”
If I could tell Penina one thing, it would be: We’re tight for money, tight for time, and struggling to make this work. We can’t start the gown hunt again just because you found something different.
The night of Aharon’s l’chayim was the night that I officially entered shidduchim.
I mean, not exactly, because I was sort of in the parshah already, but I was young, still nineteen, and I knew Ma wanted him to go first. My brother is five years older than me, waited a while, and we were all super excited when he became a chassan.
It had been a few years since the last chasunah, Dovid and Brocha’s. I was a kid then; this was a whole new league. And, I found out soon enough, a whole new level of pressure.
“Penina, what are you wearing for the l’chayim?” Ma rushed into the kitchen, cell phone wedged by her shoulder and car keys in hand.
I shrugged. “I was thinking my black dress with the satiny edging? Why, you had another idea?”
Ma pressed her lips together. “No. No, no, I think you need something different. And then there’s the vort too… can you meet me in ten minutes outside, we’ll hit the stores and see what we can find?”
I blinked. “Shopping? I have classes soon. I think the black dress is fine, it’s just a l’chayim…”
“It’s not ‘just’ anything, you’re in shidduchim, really, Penina.” Ma only snapped when she was completely stressed out. “Take off college, it’s fine, your brother’s getting engaged tonight. And we’ll go find a couple of beautiful dresses that will look good. You never know who will see you and have an idea, right?”
I bit my lip. Was she insinuating that I don’t usually look good?
For the l’chayim, I ended up in a brand-new, loosely flowing dress that was super comfortable and according to all accounts, looked great too.
“You look so good,” Aunt Minnie said, stressing the last word. I thanked her and wondered again if that was surprising.
“Wow, Penina, you’ve really lost weight,” Aunt Bassie commented admiringly.
I hadn’t; the dress was obviously doing its job. But the compliments didn’t make me feel any better.
Do they usually look at me and think I look awful? I knew I wasn’t thin, I could live with that. But I never thought people looked at me and thought, overweight. Maybe now that I was in shidduchim, everything was changing.
I thought about my mother’s panic about what I would wear, the new and exorbitantly priced dress in my closet for Aharon’s vort, the way my mother looked me up and down and nixed dress after dress this morning in the store. So she also thought I looked heavy. She was concerned about my image, about shidduchim.
The new dress had lost all its allure by the time the evening was over.
Ma made a couple of tentative suggestions about dieting before the wedding. I went along with her ideas, but honestly, I wasn’t too hopeful. This was just my build; I’d been through dieting fads before.
More important, in my mind, was a gown for the wedding itself.
“Where am I gonna find something?” I asked Ma, half-wailing. “So many of the gowns around are stunning if you’re a size zero, and look awful if you’re any bigger. I don’t even know where to look!”
“The right gown will make you look absolutely beautiful,” Ma said firmly. “And we’ll get one made if we have to. You’re the sister of the chassan, you’re in shidduchim, and you deserve to look good and feel good. Okay?”
That reassured me a little. I started searching online, ordered a few dresses that looked like they had potential. I figured that altering a store-bought dress would be cheaper than starting from scratch – and besides, I wasn’t into clothing design, I wouldn’t know where to start.
Then my sister-in-law Brocha called.
“Penina, how are you doing?” She sounded rushed, and hurtled on before I could reply. “Listen, we’ve found a set of gorgeous gowns, literally stunning, from a gemach near my house. There’s loads of them, the same color, different styles, Dassy and Tova have already picked out ones that they like, and I also did. Would you want the number, so you could go over and see if you like any of them for you?”
I stopped short. I had not expected this. So all the sisters-in-law were matching, wow, that meant I had to really join, right?
“Um, I guess I can look, but I’ve already ordered a few, I didn’t realize you were planning this together,” I stammered, feeling silly.
Brocha sent me the number of the lady who ran the gemach, and I promised to call and see. Who knows, right?
But the whole situation gave me a bad feeling.
My sisters-in-law, Tova, Dassy, and Brocha, are wonderful people. They’re also all slim and petite. I had no doubt that the gowns were beautiful – on them. But would they even have one in my size? I was taller and broader than all of them.
Ma came with me to the gemach, and as soon as we saw the gowns, my heart sank.
They were champagne, of all colors, and the largest-size one looked like it had been made for the kallah’s grandmother or something. It was all loose-fitting and drapey, and made me look like an elephant. It wasn’t just bad, it was hideous.
I took it off and made it all the way to the car before bursting into tears.
Ma, of course, was perfectly practical. “Penina, it’s fine, you don’t need to go with that gown. We’re going to find you something beautiful and well-designed and amazing.”
I didn’t know what I was going to tell Brocha, but Ma reassured me that it would be fine. “Maybe you’ll find something in the same color, let’s wait and see.”
But despite making the rounds of all the gown rentals in town, we didn’t find anything that worked that was even close to the coloring and style that my sisters-in-law had chosen. There was something okay-ish in black and gold, but I didn’t love it, and besides, black and gold was not going to fit in with their soft, shimmery champagnes.
Then my online orders arrived. One was horrendous, the color of the second far too pale. But the third one I opened was different.
“Ma,” I breathed. “Come look at this.”
It was a beautiful deep teal-blue, elegantly cut, well-designed. I loved it at first sight. We would need to add sleeves, a lining, something to adjust the neckline, but nothing that a good seamstress couldn’t handle. The color made me glow. It was the exact same shade as my eyes.
“You’re getting it,” Ma said, firmly. “This is the gown, Penina, no question about it.”
I showed her the receipt, but she waved it off. “You’re in shidduchim, Penina, we don’t look at the money. A girl’s gotta look her best, okay?”
I twirled in front of the mirror, admiring the sheen of the fabric. “You sure, Ma?”
Then I thought of something. “What are we going to do about those gowns that Brocha chose? For her and Dassy and Tova? Will they all wear champagne still, or do you think they can get something in blue?”
“I’ll sort it out,” Ma said. “What was it, a gemach set of dresses? Maybe they can find a different gemach, try for something in teal or turquoise or even just blue. I’m sure they won’t mind looking around, it’s just gemach dresses, after all. No one’s invested anything.”
I bit my lip. I didn’t think my sisters-in-law would be too happy about the change of plans. But what could I do? I tried my best to make it work, spent hours running around looking at champagne and gold and tan dresses. They hadn’t bothered to ask my opinion on the color scheme in the first place, either.
I didn’t think about the gowns again until a few days later, when Ma hung up the phone, frowning.
“What happened?” I asked her.
“Nothing, nothing,” she waved me off, sounding distracted. “Just the gowns, you know, seems like it’s a bit complicated with Tova and the others. You know, with changing their plans.”
Something pinched at me. A bit complicated?
They chose without me. I spent hours trying to go along with them. They didn’t consider my opinion, feelings, or my weight when they went for an option that made me look all wrong.
Nothing was designed or altered or paid for, they were gemach gowns. Why couldn’t they just put a bit more effort in?
I thought of the wedding, pictured myself in dazzling teal-blue finery. I’d been so excited to find the gown, the alterations were well underway. I was finally going to wear something that made me look and feel good. And now all the excitement fizzled away.
If I were the only one at odds with the color scheme, how would I look in the family pictures? In the circles of dancing? At the table?
Different. As usual. Because of my weight.
Why couldn’t they understand, and try just a little harder to make it work out?
If I could tell Tova one thing, it would be: It hurts to have to stick out like a sore thumb because I’m not as skinny as all of you.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 837)
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