The house wasn’t on fire, but a massive amount of smoke was billowing from the floors and walls. My former stepfather, Jerry, who had just returned from a night of liquor-fueled debauchery, decided to build a fire, but in true “Jerry style,” forgot to open the chimney flute. The hallway leading into my bedroom was so smokey, I could barely see in front of me. I managed to open the door, get down on my knees and crawl to my closet.

A few moments earlier, my mother had hasitly handed me a trash bag and instructed me to quickly fill it with my most precious belongings and meet her and my brother back in the hallway. It was a tricky request, though, considering I was only eleven years old. I grabbed my top three stuffed animals, a few dollies and threw in a few t-shirts and jeans for good measure.

When the three of us reconvened, she instructed us to sneak quietly down the stairs, make our way to the side breezeway door (which was the easiest place to exit the house without being seen) and run to the bottom of the hill (where we would wait for her.) With no time to spare, my brother quickly grabbed my hand and off we went – running into the cold, wintery darkness. I cried quietly at the thought of leaving my mother behind. I had good reason to be scared, too.  

The night before, Jerry had come home drunk yet again, deciding (at three in the morning) we needed to have a family dinner together. So he dragged my brother and I out of bed (me by my hair, my brother by his shirt) and took us into the kitchen, where my mother was already reheating a pot of leftover spaghetti she had made earlier that evening. Jerry screamed at my brother and I to sit at the small dinette table and put our napkins on our laps. As my brother and I did what we were told, we wept openly and clung to one another in fear.

Terrified by his behavior, my mother asked Jerry to stop yelling at us and insisted he sit down so she could serve him his meal. The simple request, which was obviously made to protect her children, threw him into a wild, angry rage. He became so mean and so aggressive, it was like nothing I had ever seen before (and thank God, have never seen since.)

Yelling, Jerry grabbed the pot of hot spaghetti from the stove and flung it to the floor. It cracked into big, red-streaked, chunky pieces. He then grabbed my mother by her hair, kicked her to her knees and demanded she eat the spaghetti off the floor. She did as she was told without question or hesitation. Needless to say, my brother and I cried in horror watching her. It was a really long, sad, horrible night that eventually gave way to Jerry passing out on the living room floor. I’ll never forget the look in my mother’s eyes when the violent episode ended. It changed her forever.

The next night, while Jerry tinkered with the fireplace, the residue of smoke he created when he failed to open the chimney flute gave us the perfect opportunity to escape him and my mother seized the moment as if her very life depended on it and  (well, it did.) Just as she promised, she met my brother and I at the bottom of that hill and despite only being married to Jerry a short amount of time, we ran away and never looked back. She was officially “The Run(a)Way Bride.”

That night we made our way across three cornfields, walked up a steep hill and crossed a deserted road to get to our neighborhood post office. It was there that we hid in a small patch of pine trees. I still remember the way the sap smelled on my mittens and how the pine needles painfully wedged their way into my light brown corduroys, as I lay on the ground praying Jerry wouldn’t find us (to this day, the smell of pine reminds me of fear.)

We hid in those trees for most of the night until a dark, unmarked vehicle slowly pulled into the post office parking lot and turned off its lights. My mother whispered to my brother and I not to be scared; instructing us that on the count of three we would all run to the car together. With my heart pounding and my palms sweating, I listened to my mother count softly and bolted on cue.

Despite being freaked out, I found refuge and relief inside the car’s warm, comfortable interior. It smelled of leather, spicy cologne and coffee. The gentlemen sitting behind the steering wheel had a deep, raspy voice, salt and pepper hair, was clean shaven and neatly dressed. He scared me. Actually, a lot of men scared me after Jerry.

The gentlemen inside the car introduced himself as David and I figured he must have been the reason my mother lagged behind my brother and I (earlier that night) when we ran to the bottom of the hill. She had called him asking for help. “You call, I haul,” I quickly learned was one of David’s favorite mottos in life. David and my mother had met at Camp Dawson in West Virginia, a local national guard training site for different parts of the military. My mother worked there as an assistant facility manager. David was a Special Operations solider from Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

That night, David drove my mother, brother and I to safety. Actually, we drove until the night turned to morning and then we drove some more. We crossed a lot of state lines until we found ourselves far, far away. David loaned my mother some money and helped us find a house, where we started over with nothing but what we had carried out of the house the night of our great escape.

My mother would become overly emotional when she opened my trash bag to find only a few clothes, but a hearty helping of my stuffed animals and dollies. The challenge of starting over financially, emotionally and mentally, was insurmountable, but after what Jerry had put us through, there was really no other choice.

My mother, “The Run(a)Way Bride,” who had acted quickly to protect her babies and herself, was now alone, broke and in shock. Frankly, we all were. I developed severe anxiety and insomnia and my brother became distant and introverted. As time passed, we settled into our new lives, but the scars remained… that is, until David reappeared.

David had returned from an army training mission and had come to find my mother. It was a hot summer day when he drove up to our house in the very car he had saved us in. I was the first person to hear his tires hit the gravel in our driveway and I immediately ran outside to welcome him. David was my lifesaver.

He wasn’t just mine, though. His smile, laughter and easy way lightened my mother’s mood and made her beautiful again. When he visited he brought only good news, groceries and a giant helping of hope. He even bought me a cat to keep me company during my bouts of severe insomnia and he played basketball with my brother.  

One weekend, David came to visit us in a cute, green Volkswagen Beetle and took us for a drive in the country. We had a picnic and went swimming in a beautiful lake. I remember the day well: not only was I happy, but I saw the way David looked at my mother and the way my mother looked at him.

Although I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time, I would grow to realize that I was watching them fall in love. There may not be any pill you can take to get over abuse or an abusive relationship, but I truly believe that love can indeed help heal what is broken.

David and my mother got married on a Christmas afternoon in front of our beautifully decorated tree. It seemed only fitting, as he was our true gift. He saved us, loved us and raised us as his own. He also taught me, perhaps, one of the most important lessons of my life: love does not and should not hurt. EVER.

I’ve never done a bridal blog before and I wanted it to be special. When I met bridal consultant, Dulce de los Reyes, of Coral Gables Bridals, I knew I could share this very personal and private story. Especially because of her motto, which is to “always follow your heart.”

The night my mother became “The Run(a)Way Bride,” she did just that. The risk she took to escape an abusive relationship not only set her free, literally and figuratively speaking, it opened her up and allowed her to find true, long lasting, meaningful love. Which is really what we’re all looking for…isn’t it?

Dulce has seen a lot of love in her life, as her experience in the bridal business rivals anyone in South Florida. For nearly 34 years, almost the exact amount of time my mother and David have been married, Dulce has been helping brides pick their  perfect dress. In her business, it’s called “saying yes to the dress.”

Just recently, Dulce did something daring; moved her famed Miracle Mile store off what has become know as “bridal row.” Now, she happily resides on Coral Way. Recently, I spent a glorious Sunday afternoon with her, talking, laughing, trying on dresses and finding out what it’s like seeing all kinds of love up-close-and-personal.

Shireen Sandoval: What an amazing day shooting pictures in your beautiful gowns at your new store. Which dress did you prefer on me for our shoot?
Dulce de los Reyes: It is a difficult question to answer because all of the dresses looked beautiful on you, but if I had to choose one, I truly loved how the Pronovias Atelier “Carezza” dressed looked on your figure (the middle picture in the blog.)  When you tried on the dress, it looked fabulous and it was a perfect match with your personality.  

SS: You really know what a bride wants. How do you do it?  Mental telepathy!?
DR: It’s the experience of working with thousands of brides. There’s no science behind my work, but it’s a skill I have acquired after dealing with all of the emotions that arise while a bride is searching for the perfect dress. When I look at a bride, I have an initial sense of the style she’s looking for based on the way she carries herself, her personality and her body shape. The process also involves listening closely to what the bride wants for her special day. It is my responsibility to respect how she envisions herself at her wedding. As we begin trying on dresses, her vision may change, so that’s where we step in to help guide her final decision.

SS: Coral Gables Bridals isn’t just a store,  it’s an experience. How did your beautiful boutique get its start?
DR: I opened Coral Gables Bridals 34 years ago. My inspiration came when I visited a local bridal store to find a debutante dress for my daughter. At the time, I was in the real estate business but I was looking for a career change. From the moment I walked into the store, I knew I had found my calling. When I first came to Miracle Mile, there was only one other bridal store on the mile. Over the years, Miracle Mile became one of the most sought-after bridal destinations in the country and abroad. After 34 years, I decided to “think outside the mile” because I wanted to offer my brides larger fitting rooms, reserved parking and a larger selection of dresses. In the end, I found my dream location only a block and a half away from Miracle Mile on Coral Way.

SS: When it comes to wedding dresses, what is the hottest trend right now?
DR: The hottest trend is a dress with a lot of emphasis on the back. In the past, many brides wanted a strapless dress. But in order to have a beautiful back, we’re receiving requests for new and innovative designs on the necklines. Lace continues to be very popular because it’s a traditional bridal material. Today’s brides also love to accentuate their figures so the mermaid and slim A-line looks are always a favorite. I can go on and on but I think these are the most common trends.

SS: If it’s all about the back, what kind of back?
DR: The most requested back is very low into the waistline and it’s embellished with lace applique over sheer tulle. We also carry dresses with bare backs that allow the bride to show her beautiful skin.

SS: What advice do you have for a bride searching for the perfect dress?
DR: From my experience, many brides have imagined their dream dress by looking at bridal magazines or attending weddings. The first thing they try on when they walk into my store is a dress that reflects the image they’ve had in their mind for some time. In this instance, a bride may realize that the dress she had imagined isn’t the right fit with her figure, her personality and, most importantly, it doesn’t strike a magical chord with her heart. My advice is to always listen to your heart and let your inner voice guide you during the process.
SS: You don’t just dress South Florida brides, you do it for your family, too.
DR: My daughter, Lisa, has been married for 26 years and she actually wore one of my dresses on her special day. As of March, Lisa’s daughter (my granddaughter) will be flying into Miami to choose her wedding gown at my store as well. It is an extremely emotional moment in my life. Since I opened my store, I have seen and dressed many second generations of brides that have been my clients. However, this bride-to-be is very near and dear to my heart and I’m going to really enjoy helping her choose her dream gown.
SS: Who is the most beautiful bride you’ve ever seen?
DR: The Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly. She is the epitome of a timeless bride.

SS: The last wedding I attended I cried like a baby! Do you still cry at weddings?
DR: I also cried at the last wedding I attended (which was for one of my nephews,) but in my store, it often brings tears to my eyes when a bride says “yes to the dress.” This very special moment is usually accompanied with tears of joy from the bride and her loved ones.
SS: What do you do or how do you handle a pushy mother, mother-in-law or maid of honor (person in wedding party?)
DR: I always treat them with a lot of TLC. You have to become their friend and make them feel like they are part of the decision making process. Even if you’re feeling frustrated, you must let it go and remember that the bride doesn’t need additional stress or pressure.

SS: What’s the most important thing to remember on the day of your wedding?
DR: I would advise brides to be as relaxed as possible and remember to EAT on your special day. Remember that although every little detail isn’t perfect, wedding guests won’t even notice the things you are worried about. Don’t let the little things take away the joy of the moment. Step back, look around and realize that everyone who is at your wedding is there to celebrate your union. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy!!!!!

With that being said, It’s hard not to enjoy a day at Coral Gables Bridals, with their fun-loving energy, huge selection of gorgeous dresses and sophisticated style. Dulce styled me in so many different looks, it was hard to choose my favorite. We worked the gamut together, going from sexy, sophisticated, innocent, vintage and last but not least, high style. The most important trend in bridal dresses right now is the back. It’s all about the back of the dress!

With your vows in front of you and your loved ones behind you, both sides of the dress are just as important. This year, backs are decadent; whether it’s intricate lace, mesh, embroidered flowers, beads or Swarovski crystals, there are a lot of different ways to go. Long veils and a lot of lace are big trends, too. I chose looks that were, for the most part, age appropriate, keeping in mind I had been down the aisle before.

By the way, no matter the age or the number of weddings, every woman still wants to feel special on her big day. Dulce’s only advice on that is to keep your body shape in mind and find something that flatters your best assets. I agree and even think white is still okay if done tastefully. In the meantime…

My mom went through a lot with Jerry. In fact, we all did, but despite all of the pain, hurt and suffering, we became better because of it and more importantly, the three of us were lucky enough to get our happily ever after: David. And that’s why “The Run(a)Way Bride” will always be one of my favorite things.  

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship and need help PLEASE CALL 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

Shop the blog looks at
Twitter: @cg_bridals
IG: @coralgablesbridals

Special thanks to Susset Cabrera and Peacock Public Relations

Twitter: @ShireenSandoval
IG: @ShireenSandoval

Photographer: James Woodley
Twitter: @BritFloridian
IG: @BritFloridian

Hair & Make-up: Odette Hernandez
Twitter: @Odettehernandz

Assist: Jackie Kay
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Editor: Matthew Auerbach

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