Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Flower Princess

By Nicole Owens

I patted the tulle clouds of my white dress as Mama brushed my dark hair. She clipped tiny ivory flowers to the top of my head, and I was complete - a real princess. Flower girl, they called me, but in my four-year-old mind, I was Cinderella.

We arrived at the church early to practice, and Bonnie, the bride, handed me the basket of all importance. Tucked inside lay dozens of crisp purple orchids. The outside was white wicker, adorned with bows and satin ribbons. It whispered to me, "Princess, princess, princess."

My turn in the rehearsal came, and Bonnie leaned over. "Now, don't put any of the flowers down yet," she said. I nodded, thinking Mama must have been wrong when she said my job was to drop flowers on the carpet. Poor Mama. She must have never been a flower princess.

I marched to the front of the church, clasping my basket, holding my head even and stiff. The prettiest bridesmaid, Josephine, winked and said how grown-up I was. My fingers longed to touch her long satiny skirt, but I stood tall and still, like a real lady.

Then the people came. Tall people, squatty people, people in hats and vests and polka-dot dresses. Men in collars and aloha shirts. Women in heels as tall as pencils. I watched the other kids in their suspenders and pigtails and long flowered muumuus. Well, I thought, feeling sad for them, I suppose we can't all be princesses.

They filled the church with their hushed laughter and rustling dresses and warmth. Up front, Mrs. Ayabe plunked beautiful music out of the old piano. Mama kissed my forehead. "You'll do just fine, sweetie." She put my hand in Bonnie's and left.

Bonnie and I waited at the very back in our matching Cinderella dresses. We waited through the music and the praying and the turning pages. We waited as the bridesmaids in their satin skirts went before us - one, two, three, four. And then it was my turn.

Hundreds of eyes rested on me, but I stared straight ahead to the front of the church. Watching only the old man with the Bible, I slowly traveled the skinny aisle, just like Mama told me - first foot, together; second foot, together.

My fingers gripped the handle of the wicker basket as I guarded my treasure. I wished right down to my toes that I could sprinkle a few flowers, just to show everyone how purple they were. But Bonnie's words whispered in my head. Don't put the flowers down yet.

As I reached the man up front, I saw Mama smiling. It was a funny smile. The kind she gives when I mix the buttons on my shirt, or forget which shoe goes where. I thought maybe her strange look was from being so proud, but a little part of my stomach tied worried knots.

After lots of talking and praying and singing, when I almost had to yawn, I saw one of the men kiss Bonnie smack on the lips. I didn't think God allowed kissing in church, but the man with the Bible was nodding, so I let it pass. Then everything was music and clapping and people swarming around Bonnie and the kissing man.

Mama found me after the wedding, and knelt down to my size. She held both of my hands, even the one still clamped to the basket. "Sweetie," she said with that smile, "Sweetie, why didn't you put down the flowers?"

I opened my mouth to explain when Bonnie glided by, all lace and white and tulle.

"You were adorable, Nicki, absolutely adorable!" she gushed. "And it's okay that you forgot about the flowers." Then the sea of fancy people swallowed her back into their handshakes and hugs. I couldn't believe it.

I stood very, very still. I didn't look at Mama. The tears spilled down before I could stop them, splashing my cheeks, my dress, the rounded toes of my glossy white shoes. I wanted to use my screeching voice.

I had listened! I really had. I listened all perfect but I still did it wrong, and now I can't be a princess!

Mama hugged me close, saying, "It's okay. It's okay to forget. Everybody forgets sometimes, even Mama."

I made my body stiff in her arms. "But I didn't!" I protested between gulping sobs. "Bonnie said not to do the flowers! I didn't forget!" Mama patted and shushed and peppered me with kisses, but I knew she still thought I'd forgotten.

Then I felt a new hand on my back. I blinked up into the sunlight, and saw Josephine's soft smile. She whispered something to Mama, who nodded. Josephine took my hand and led me back to the sanctuary, her satin skirt swishing.

The church was empty and quiet and big as we stood at the wooden doors. I looked at Josephine. "Go ahead and put your flowers down," she said. "It's time now." She waited at the very back, and I walked slowly, carefully down the aisle of the empty church. I fingered the smooth flowers and dropped one here, then here, then here. The last orchid fell just as I reached the front of the sanctuary. Perfect. Just like a princess.

Turning toward the back of the church, I stretched my skirt wide and curtseyed deep to my imaginary audience. Josephine's laugh was like silver. When I looked up, Mama was standing beside her. She beamed my favorite smile, all shining and rounded cheeks - the kind that means she's so glad I'm hers.

I raced back over the trail of scattered flowers. Then we left the wedding, Mama with her smile, and me with my empty basket and a glow that rivaled Cinderella's.