I never dreamed of shopping for a wedding dress. I never dreamed of a wedding day, either. As a young girl turned adolescent turned burgeoning adult I dreamt, instead, of who I would be. There were no delusions of grandeur — I just wondered what I would feel like. Would I still, on occasion, want to crawl out of my own skin? Would I become emboldened, letting people know when no, actually, that wasn’t what I wanted? Would I find the levity I craved, the lightness of being, for just a moment, completely content?

It was messier than I imagined, this growing into myself. But I did grow — I am still — and I found a partner along the way, one who, if left to his own devices, would eat cereal for every meal and speak a couple of decibels too loudly in otherwise quiet spaces (too many years of working with a chainsaw, he says).

Instead I make well-rounded dinners and nudge him when he starts to shout. He wordlessly busses my dirty dishes and puts a roof over my head and changes the oil in my car. We drive three hours to a muddy ravine every few months so he can flex the lockers in his jeep, and we visit my favorite haunts for a martini (mine) and old fashioned (his) every Friday so I can regale him with tales from the newsroom. His unwavering goodness and deep devotion to our hound dog is, well, icing on the cake.

After four-and-a-half years together, and three co-habitating, we got engaged Jan. 6 2018 on a zero degree day in the mountains outside of Asheville, N.C. His mother’s ring, slightly too big for my ring finger, sat comfortably on my index as we finished our hike. “Let’s not tell anyone for a little bit,” he said as I immediately reached for my phone. So we didn’t. For almost an hour (the most I could concede) we kept our secret, then drove into town for flights of beer.

Our quiet revelry lasted a couple of days. And then the questions started. “When’s the wedding, where’s the wedding, who’s invited, what kind of food, venue, music, color theme?” “What about the dress?”

The dress. “I don’t know, maybe something, like, boho?” There was no shape or material or even color (I mean, emerald could be cool?) that I could conjure when I closed my eyes against the queries. My twin sister, engaged a few months earlier, already had a “mood board,” a list of accounts to follow on Instagram, and had narrowed down which bridal boutiques we would need to visit in Charleston. I Googled “outdoor wedding” and screenshotted a few waifish models spinning in fields with ivory lace dresses and flower crowns. Maybe something like that.

My mother was to come down from Virginia mid-March and we would make a weekend of it, just the three of us. She’d stay in a hotel downtown and we’d eat and drink and shop, toasting to elaborate events that would happen eventually, savoring the extended celebration.

The outlines of my wedding had slowly started to take shape — we’d get married at my childhood home in Virginia, keep it small, around 50 people. It would mostly be our family, and a few close friends. I would pull up in my father’s deadrise boat, so we had to time it right — a Saturday in September for the sunset, the high tide. I could see it now — a perfect evening. Completely content.

And then the weekend before my mother came down, we got a call that my fiance’s father had suddenly, and unexpectedly, passed away. The days in between were a blur.

I drove back to Charleston that Friday, after five days in central Florida, easing myself into the untouched outside world. By the time our first appointment came around, the morning of St. Patrick’s Day, I was hollow. I had just started to regain my footing, and now I was supposed to choose the most important item of clothing I would ever wear. I desperately searched through my phone for photos of dresses I’d saved. I held it up to the consultant, “maybe something like that?”

Do you know how many styles of wedding dresses there are? Did you know you can customize the top and the bottom, that you can add sparkly belts and jewels and bows and delicate lace toppers? There’s white, and then there’s ivory. Veils can be uncut or trimmed with intricate designs and tiny beads. There are one hundred million dresses out there, and almost as many photos on social media of models wearing them, posed against dramatic backdrops with moody lighting. They don’t look (or fit) quite the same in person.

The bridal shop visit was surprisingly, blessedly, lovely and easy. My sister, who just got married in early December, chose a glamorous Kennedy-esque sik gown with a long train and big bow. It was the first dress she tried on.

In my zombie-like state I hesitated, smiling as best I could in the full-length mirror. One, two, three, four. “It’s nice!”

I had stuck with the “boho” idea that I’d always held onto, for whatever reason, but my consultant, perhaps knowing I was not all there, brought me a dress that was entirely different from everything else I tried on. A ball gown with spaghetti straps and a full skirt, with a rippled jacquard design on the bottom and a French tulle bodice with boning up top. The ripples reminded me of the creek at home. “This one.”

I knew that day, even as I declared that this, this was the one, that it didn’t matter, really, what dress I wore. Each one I tried on was beautiful. Days after, until I made myself stop, I scrolled through one hundred million more dresses online, bemoaning the fact that I hadn’t tried this one, or that one. Even after three fittings, one a week before the wedding, I regretted my decision — I wanted to crawl out of my skin.

But the day-of, like magic, it all fell away. I spilled rosé on my skirt getting ready; it was hidden by the design. My now-husband’s niece raced to see me on the dancefloor, ogling the ball gown; “I want to dance with the princess!” My husband slipped two gold bands on my ring finger (I finally got the engagement ring sized), one on each side of the diamond ring. The ring his father presented to his mother just 10 days after they’d met. The one that traveled across countries and states, the one that forged a love and a family with four children and countless stories, ones, often told, a couple of decibels too loud. We shimmied to the dancefloor for a halfway practiced first dance, and my long skirt billowed in the wind kicking up off the creek. I felt light, like I was flying.

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Mary Scott Hardaway, the CP cuisine editor, loves telling stories, drinking dirty martinis, and working alongside her twin sister, CP’s arts editor. She lives on Johns Island with her husband, cat, and dog. She’s happy to report she has gotten all the stains out of her wedding dress, even the rosé.

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Tami Boyce is a Charleston-based illustrator and graphic designer. Her work can be found at various establishments including Theatre 99, Early Bird Diner, and ZaPow! Gallery in Asheville, NC. To see more of her work, visit tamiboyce.com.