It was kind of embarrassing and weird. Walking through the Salem Center Mall looking for a formal for my wife felt like trying to get on the right car of an Italian train – the clothing terms seemed like a foreign language – and the few words I did understand, like “clearance” and “70 percent off” didn’t exactly put me on the right track.
Linda and I had been married eighteen months when an older couple explained to me that buying something like a formal for her would be a major surprise. Since the senior banquet at the college where we worked was that night and Linda had already settled on wearing the same dress she’d worn the previous year, I knew she wouldn’t be expecting a new one. Although I enjoyed surprising my wife, what I didn’t know was that this shopping trip would uncover an aspect of Linda’s life that would surprise me.
“Can I help you?” I should have noticed the smirk on the young sales associate’s face as she practically blindsided me at the “70 percent off” rack. I lifted what I thought was the perfect dress from the rack and showed it to her. Since I had only shopped with Linda for Christmas gifts, I really had no idea what styles she liked. So, I went with what I liked — seemed logical enough since she wouldn’t be able to see herself in the dress anyway.
“That’s a pretty dress and it’s a great price. You won’t find a better bargain in the whole mall.” Her sales pitch sounded great to me, since I had no intention of shopping the “whole mall” anyway. “You’ll probably want a few accessories” she continued.
Thirteen minutes later, I was back at our apartment.
I bent the metal neck of the hanger so I could hang the dress from the closet door. “This’ll be the first thing she sees when she walks in. Will she be surprised!”
I should probably explain, here, that Linda and I are a bit like the ol’ Donny and Marie show: I’m “a little bit country,” and she’s “a little bit rock n roll.” So, you can probably guess what the dress looked like. Yes, it was pink. Not the 1980s west coast kind of pink the college girls occasionally wore. This was the soft, pastel pink that little girls dressed up in for tea parties. And the length? Well, let’s just say it was the only formal at the banquet that brushed the floor with sweeping layers of crinolyn and lace.
To finish off its country, “70 percent off” charm, each sleeve puffed upward from the shoulder like a transparent cloud, and a pink sash tied the back into a perfect and prominent bow. And the accessories the sales associate so appreciatively endorsed? White lace gloves and a matching hat. I pinned the gloves to the sleeves and the hat to the top of the hanger – to complete the stunning visual impact of my purchase. I guess if you were to sum it up using an allusion, this was a Gone with the Wind kind of dress – a movie title I should have understood in the imperative.
An hour later, Linda arrived home and raced to the bedroom to get ready for the evening. When she opened the door, she stood stunned. “Yes! Just the reaction I was hoping for,” I thought as I watched her wonder at the depth of my sacrifice and love.
At the banquet I took pictures of her gliding down the spiral staircase and standing beside her girl friends. I thought of the passage from the Song of Songs “like a lily among the thorns is my darling among the maidens” — so striking was the contrast!
Later that evening as she reached to hang the pink dress at the back of the closet, I reminded her, “Honey, tomorrow’s Sunday. You could wear the dress again.” She turned toward me and smiled strangely, like a mentor hoping you can understand her next lesson.
“Did you see anyone else in a dress like this tonight?” The rich auburn in her eyes pulled at the highlights in her matching hair.
“Well, of course not, that’s why you were so uniquely beauti. . .” Then it hit me.
She didn’t like the dress. But, for some reason she’d worn it the whole evening without a single complaint — the lace, the prominent bow and the crinolyn beautifully complemented by her constant smile.
My mind wandered through the evening’s events. The smiles and gestures of the college girls as Linda walked by. The huddled faculty wives looking her way. I had assumed they were stares of admiration, but Linda knew she’d been the topic of conversation for other reasons.
“Well, why didn’t you say something?”
She put her arms around my neck. “Thanks for thinking about me,” she whispered. As she slept that evening, I stared at the closet. Somewhere in there hung a dress – a frilly, old-fashioned thing that would forever minister to me the simple freshness of her love.
Each year when I tell this story to my classes, students stop by to see the picture in my office. I always watch with wonder as their initial reactions of laughter, disbelief (and even some respectful ridicule) turn into something more. Something I still struggle to describe.
Each time I watch the transformation, I hope. I hope that these students will meet the kind of person I live with every day. And I hope that on their lonely days, as they walk, through the malls of their memories, they will see what Jesus meant when he said that life is about more than food and clearance racks and clothes – it’s about His love pictured for us in the everyday sacrifices we make for each other. Sacrifices we make because differences sometimes require them.
That’s what I see each time I look at her picture – each time I think about the dress that wore her love.
“The Dress That Wore Her Love” is excerpted from “Redeeming Relationships,” courtesy FaithWalk Publishing