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FIRST STEPS ON THE WAY TO THE ALTAR -- BUYING THE DRESS

EDITOR'S NOTE: Gail Norheim, a reporter in The Buffalo News' Niagara Bureau, is getting married in August 2005. In a series that will run occasionally, Norheim will share the trials, tribulations and joys of preparing for a wedding.

Shops that sell wedding dresses should really offer the services of a resident psychologist.

The emotions!

The years of hope and regret that walk through those doors.

I'm getting married next August and I recently went looking for the first time. I had no idea fabric could have such a deeply emotional effect on people.

I didn't bring any friends, not even my sister. I went with a person who has disagreed with almost every choice I've made since I graduated from high school, since I left the presence of her all-seeing eyes.

That's right -- my mother.

I've seen typical mothers and daughters dress-shopping together. They ooh and ahh with each other, help navigate buttons and zippers together, and the mothers generally treat their children as if they've solved a mathematical enigma because they can look good in a formal dress.

My mother and I are not like that, but I've always wanted us to be.

Little did I know that wedding-dress shopping was to be the surprise setting for our first "ooey gooey" moment.

I flew down to my old home in Maryland so we could shop together. After sleeping in my old bed, I was up by 6:45 a.m. to go to a chain wedding store an hour away.

The store was like the Home Depot of wedding dress shops. I had my own attendant, who gave me wedding gown undergarments -- a bustier, which threatened to cut off my air supply, and a Spandex control slip with frilly stuff on the bottom.

I was nervous as I entered the rows of white gowns with our attendant.

At first my mother picked out dresses no one born after, say, the year 1900 would dream of wearing. But I kept my cool. So did my mom.

Then she started bringing me dresses she thought I would like. And I did.

We even agreed on a few. Especially the one we found on the $99 rack. It was a strapless princess-cut A-line without a train. It had a silk band across the upper torso and elaborate beading at the top that fanned out across the tulle. It was beautiful, just discontinued.

I got a lot of compliments on it from the other brides-to-be, and I caught my mother unabashedly staring at me. It felt good, plain and simple.

It sounds silly, but I don't know what I would have done without my mother there. She was great with all those snaps and buttons, and even better at keeping away the pesky sales people who treated us like we were buying a car.

At one point we overheard a bride in the next room ordering around her attendants like a drill sergeant as they tried on bridesmaids dresses. We laughed quietly to ourselves.

Then we giggled when our attendant, who obviously worked on commission, made disapproving looks as I modeled the $99 dress.

You know what happened to us? We were those mothers and daughters I used to envy in the department store. It hit me all at once that what I had been hoping to have with my mom, a connection that I thought was missing, we had finally achieved.

We had probably achieved it long before and I just didn't realize it, or maybe I hadn't given her enough of a chance or enough time to have an experience that would make us giggle.

And that's why bridal shops need a psychologist.

By far the best part of the day was when I overheard my mother talking on the phone in her bedroom that night. "They were absolutely jealous of her," my mother said.

Could it be me that she was referring to? I leaned in closer to hear. "She looks good in absolutely everything," she said.

She was talking about me!

It felt so good to be the apple of my mother's eye, corny phrase though it is.

It felt so good I did the most girly thing I could think to do. I cried.

My dress decision doesn't matter so much anymore. I never bought that $99 dress, or any others.

The search, though, gave me something that will fit me perfectly for a lifetime -- a new appreciation for my mother.

e-mail: gnorheim@buffnews.com