Parking in the crowded lot, I realized that an ocean of anxious mothers faced the same miserable fate as I. I could see it etched in the surly faces of the tall, thin girls walking 10 feet ahead of their befuddled moms, each of us nodding in growing apprehension as we neared the entrance to the supermall. Joining the masses, my daughter and I slipped into the first store and began the long process of the search.
It should be such a simple thing; find a dress for the dance. What could be so difficult? Pretty much everything, if you happen to be the mother of a 16-year-old girl searching for the "perfect" gown on the last shopping day before the big event.
Shopping with Jessie was so much fun, until the age of reason. (The age of reason being defined as the first time a child fails to listen to your wise shopping advice; my child stopped listening at age 5.)
She developed a sense of style that couldn't be shaken. On more than one occasion, she simply would not buy anything rather than bend to my will - or taste. Every day spent shopping with her was a test of wills; often, it was difficult to figure out who won. So that day, as I drove with her to our local mall, I braced myself for yet another dismal outing.
Color had already been decided - only black, possibly red, but not that icky orange-red. Long, hopefully with a side split and some kind of really cool neckline (read: plunging). Rack after rack of dresses were instantly disregarded as she sighed and rolled her eyes through one store after another.
"I knew I wouldn't find anything; all my friends said there are no good dresses left. Everything is so ugly."
Trying to quiet her as several girls picked dresses from her designated "ugly" rack only seemed to irritate her more.
"What about this one?" I asked the question knowing she wouldn't even consider the dress I held in my hands. In fact, my comment ensured immediate and intense dislike.
"Are you kidding? That's past ugly."
And so it went, for more than four hours. For a kid with a perfect size 4 body, she was suddenly too fat for anything cute, too tall for anything cool, and too well-endowed for any of the dresses held together with less than an inch of material. Frustration growing, her comments became even more caustic and I began to practice my deep-breathing exercises, hoping to retain some sense of motherly decorum.
As she slumped into a final dressing room with an "OK" dress, I locked eyes with another tired and confused mom. Not a word passed between us; only that universal shrug of understanding, compassion, and exhaustion. I wondered if she, like me, longed for the days when our opinions mattered. As her daughter stomped out of the fitting room, I could hear their conversation melt into sobs and harsh words. A sharp "Mom!" called me back into my own battle.
'Nothing works. This is useless. I'm just not going to Homecoming." Her eyes were hot with tears as she faced the mirror in yet another creation that didn't quite fit. "I hate this."
It felt as though she meant she hated me. Somehow, it was my fault that no dress could wrap her lovely, lean legs the way she wanted. My fault that all the reds were burnt orange, my fault that every black dress had "itchy things on it and stupid feathers."
I ventured a cautious "Would you let me try to find you something?"
She shrugged her shoulders in disgust and sighed. "What's the point? I've already looked at everything; and besides ... you'll never find anything I'll like."
And there it was - the painful truth.
I'd never find anything she liked because we're so unlike one another; because I don't know her. I'm a foreign creature to her, only here on Earth to make her life miserable and difficult, to stop her from adventure and fun. I'm someone who just doesn't get it. I wanted to shout, "Of course I'll find something. I'm your mother!"
Instead, I took another deep breath, lowered my voice, and looked her in the eyes.
"OK, it's your decision. Don't go to Homecoming or allow me to look. Your call." I waited; she turned her back to me; her shoulders sagged.
"It won't do any good.... Oh, I don't care - go ahead."
Closing the door behind me I prayed my shopping mantra. Let me find the perfect dress at the perfect price; perfect dress, perfect price ... and there it was.
The moment I saw it, I knew it was her. The color was midnight blue with a black tulle overcoat, the neckline was plunging but not completely off the deep end, and it had just enough swish to make it glamorous but not too youthful. I stood in stunned silence. I had found the Holy Grail; now, if only she would recognize it.
"What about this one?" I handed it through the changing-room door, my stomach churning with the prospect of one final rejection. Silence. No sighs, no muttered comments. Finally a meek question.
"Where'd you find this one?"
"On the rack."
The zip of her jeans told me it was at least worthy of her consideration; two minutes later she called me to look. "What do you think?"
Risking the worst error of motherhood, I announced softly, "I like it."
"Yeah - me, too."
And that was the end of our battle. We made a quick decision on shoes and accessories, hair and makeup - everything fell into place once the perfect gown was found.
Her surliness and frustration melted into joyful teenage exuberance as she text-messaged friends on her great find, while I returned the rejected "uglies" to their place.
Looking at her from across the store, I realized I missed her in ways I struggled to understand. I yearned for closeness, shared laughter, a little respect, and yes, maybe even a thank you. I longed to be a "cool" mom, a fun mom, any kind of mom other than the one had I obviously become.
Joining her at the cash register, I listened with pride as the sales clerk congratulated her on the beautiful gown and her great sense of style. With a quick look over her shoulder, my daughter smiled and presented me with my own homecoming gift.
"Thanks," she said. My mom picked it out."