Chapter One – Beginnings
When the sun cracks into my window, I arise from my pink satin sheets refreshed from one of the best nights I’ve ever had. I feel comfortable and wanted. Since I met the Cupcake Crew and everyone at The Little Shoppes, for the first time in my life, I have real friends.
Little did I expect when I came here to shoot the Cupcake Crew for their appearance in the Sweets Off TV reality baking contest, I would fall in love with St. Sebastian and its people. They’re a filmmaker’s dream.
And now I have a purpose, to feature them in a documentary. Telling the stories of the owners’ fight and depicting their individual struggles seemed like such a wonderful and simple idea when I came up with it. But faced with beginning the first day of my documentary, I’m drawing an absolute blank.
I pull the covers back over my head in frustration, then I smell something wafting from the downstairs kitchen that drives me to distraction. Coffee, biscuits? Bacon? I have a feeling Pamela intends to spoil me rotten. I’ve already gained pounds working with her, Nikki, Trudy the rest of the Cupcake Crew, while eating my way through their menu. Now Pamela’s going to fatten me up with breakfast too.
My breakfasts usually consist of a granola bar, leftover pizza or anything I can grab and go from my bare refrigerator. Even when I would be on a set, craft services bread and fruit platters never smelled so inviting. I quickly get myself together and go downstairs.
Pamela’s house is a true testament to French provincial décor with her own unique upscale Southern style. There’s a winding Gone with the Wind staircase, just like everything else, hued in all white with cute yellow and cornflower blue touches everywhere.
It’s quite a change from my garage sale chic city apartment. I’ve never really understood decorating or spent over five minutes caring what I’m sitting on or what pictures should be on the wall and definitely gave no thought to a cohesive motif.
Even Pamela’s cats have a towering castle with chintz curtains to sleep and play in instead of a run-of-the-mill scratching post.
Although I did spend several futile hours last night trying to grasp the story behind the toile curtains in the bedroom I’m staying in. They resemble people in a farming community or small village? What are they doing? And why would someone put farm scenes on curtains? I don’t get it, but honestly they’ll take some getting used to. It seems like the villagers are watching me.
Pamela says everything about you tells people who you are. According to her book, the way you dress and your home reflect the person you are to others. If that’s true, she’s prim and perfect and I’m a sloppy mess.
Following the tantalizing aromas downstairs in my nighttime sweats, I show who I am. No maintenance.
Pamela is different. She’s busy in the kitchen in her slingback heels with a smart jumpsuit, frilly white apron and perfectly plus-size hair and makeup, even this early in the morning. I can’t imagine how early she gets up to look this good, but I have a feeling she never appears disheveled.
“Welcome to the new day, sleepyhead,” she says and hands me a dainty white cup of bone china with little pink flowers on it and a saucer.
“I believe you take your coffee with one sugar and I put just a teensy little bit of milk in it for extra measure,” she says.
“Pamela, you’re nice enough to let me stay in your house—you don’t have to wait on me hand and foot. I’ve been on my own for a long time,” I tell her.
“I’ll hear none of that now. It is my pleasure to be your hostess. And besides, I haven’t been able to fuss over someone for breakfast since my Brian. I like taking care of people. It’s inbred for Southerners. I’m no baker like Nikki, but I pride myself on being an expert breakfast maker. I learned when I was a little girl; my mama taught me. She always said you never leave a gentleman caller without having a smile on his face and a full happy tummy,” she laughs.
I nearly spit out my coffee but manage to swallow hard instead. I find it hilarious that proper debutante upbringing includes the correct protocol on how to usher out a booty call. Somehow, everything seems more civilized when it comes out of Pamela’s mouth. Maybe it’s the accent. But her manners are impeccable. Never anything out of place.
She hands me a pie-like slice of egg covered in cheese with a breadcrumb crust on the bottom.
“I found this recipe in a magazine. It’s called a frittata. It must mean something in French, but the fact that it had ‘tata’ in the name is simply scandalous, but it made me laugh. Turns out it’s just a big old omelet made in the oven.”
It tastes wonderful. All the flavors of the meats, cheese, egg and bread work like an orchestra in concert. She definitely learned her lesson. My tummy’s happy. And her friendship and hospitality make me feel good all over.
“Do you want to go over to The Little Shoppes together? I believe you’re starting to film there today.” She daintily cuts her frittata with a fork and knife.
“That’s if I can think of where to start,” I say, frowning.
“I thought you were going to film about that horrible mayor wanting to take our shops away from us,” Pamela says.
“Yes, I definitely want to feature the struggle of the fight with the town over the shop’s destiny, but I also want to profile the journey of each one of the women business owners. I just don’t know who to start with,” I say.
“Well, it occurs to me to start at the beginning like the ABCs—Ali and Becky,” she says nonchalantly. In true Pamela-like fashion, it took her no effort to solve the question I was toiling over. She has a way of knowing what you need before you do and making it happen. Some would say she’s a busy body, but to me, it’s someone who cares enough to help everyone she knows.
“Pamela, you astound me. I’ll talk to Becky. Thank you,” I sigh in relief.
Driving to The Little Shoppes this time is very different from the first time I crossed the threshold. Now I’m part of the family and have a role—to capture their magical essence and tell their beautiful story with my documentary, The Heart of a Town.
This town has a unique pulse and is oozing with wonderful characters. That’s why I want to film the documentary here. The more I learn, the more I see the town everyone wants to live in. I intend to show who they are and where they’re going in this documentary. Film always tells the truth. I see things through the aspect ratio that my naked eyes wouldn’t. And these people never disappoint.
My first stop is the cupcake shop. Believe it or not, even though I filmed the Cupcake Crew for a few weeks, I only worked my way through half of their menu. But I can’t conceive of launching the day without a cupcake and a great cup of coffee from Randa’s Cup and a Book coffee shop. It’s part of my daily routine now.
Acquiring my provisions, I stroll to the Butterfly Bridal Boutique and realize I’ve never been inside before. My encounters with Becky and Ali were always in the cupcake shop or Randa’s coffee shop.
Walking in, I’m immediately stricken by a colorful and exciting fantasyland. Small multicolored butterflies hang from the ceiling like sparkling garlands on a Christmas tree. Twinkling lights line rows and rows of billowing white tulle bridal veiling, creating a canopy for the butterflies. I imagine that any bride who comes in here decides instantly they landed in a place where dreams come true. It’s a wonderland of bridal possibilities.
My impression of Becky was immediately molded the first time I saw her big smile and bright brown eyes. From her whimsical clothes with white socks, sneakers and flowing skirts, to her long black hair done up in French braids, it’s evident she and the bridal shop are one.
From my initial encounters with Becky in the cupcake shop, I see her as a sweet and kind person, yet a fragile character. And her easygoing style is a perfect counterpoint for a Bridezilla, or even just a bride, hopeful to mold and create her special day in her own image with no bossy wedding consultant always imprinting their beliefs on unsuspecting brides. Becky is the clay master who allows her brides to sculpt their own perfect wedding day, while guiding and inspiring them. Ali, on the other hand, is both clay and master. Despite her lush dark curls and little freckles aside her button nose, she can’t be underestimated. She’s a fireball at only four.
“Good morning, Ellen,” Ali greets me with her precocious smile.
“Good morning to you, Ali,” I reply, continuing to marvel at the store. “I love everything about this store. It’s so friendly and welcoming.”
“Thanks, we like it that way.” Becky comes out of the office grinning.
“Becky, I don’t know if you heard, but I’m making a documentary of The Little Shoppes and want to profile each individual shopkeeper as well as the group. I thought you and Ali would be a good place to start. OK?” I ask.
“I’d probably break your camera, but maybe Ali’s cuteness will cancel me out,” she laughs, tickling Ali so she giggles sweetly.
“Don’t be silly. The camera loves you. I can set up now, if that’s ok, and get some background,” I return her grin reassuringly. Everybody worries what they look like on camera. Except Pamela, now that I think of it. She thinks she’s Gloria Swanson looking for her closeup.
“Sure—Ken and Ron are coming in later for their first wedding consultation, but I have time now,” she offers.
After a few minutes, I’m all set up with Becky and Ali in frame.
“Why is it called Butterfly Bridal Boutique?” I ask.
“Tell her the story, Becky,” Ali directs and skips away to play in her room. Through the door, I can see her playroom next to the office. It has a sparkly princess castle tent covered in multiple colors of glowing lights. It is filled with big fluffy pillows and toys.
That’s actually a funny story. My mother got this place after my father left. She needed something that could support us and live beyond her, so I could inherit it. And someplace a single working mother could bring her daughter every day, all day. She met Jane in town and next thing we knew, we opened a bridal shop.
The name actually came organically. I was only three at the time and really liked butterflies. Each starts out as an ugly caterpillar with one purpose and then is reborn as a colorful, beautiful butterfly that spreads its wings and flies free to do whatever it wants. Before we were open I took the bridal veils she ordered and ran around the store using them like butterfly nets to catch pretend butterflies. My mother thought that was cute and the butterfly name stuck. Through the years, my mother embraced the idea with stationery and the logo. Even the hanging butterflies around the shop are a testament to that little girl’s imagination.
I was always playing make-believe in the store. One Halloween, my mother bought me a bridal costume. I’d dance around the store to the Wedding March in my fluffy dress, white tights, shiny Mary Jane shoes and flowing bridal veil, envying all the girls who came in. Every year for Halloween, I’d dress up as a bride again and again, with bigger and more elaborate costumes.
All my life I dreamed of the day when I would promenade down the aisle for real dressed in the best white or ivory satin and lace with everyone wanting to be me, while the man at the end of the aisle looked at me like he was the luckiest man in the world.
I still cling to butterflies. As a child, I was extremely awkward and board-shaped, and I was never really comfortable in my own skin. I always imagined I was a caterpillar waiting to morph into a beautiful butterfly.
The one time in my life I felt like a butterfly was on my wedding day. I finally found the man I was meant to be with. The wedding was extraordinary. You can guess the wedding of a wedding planner would be something quite exceptional. My mother pulled out all the stops, but I’m a simple person and I didn’t want a big showy wedding. Here’s a picture.
As you can see, my gown was uncomplicated, but my mother had it handmade with little butterflies crocheted into the bodice instead of lace or beading. I wanted it to be sweet and understated. But the veil was my crowning glory. With a dainty butterfly tiara made of pearls, the eight-foot veil was really something. My mother had a lady that used to be here in The Little Shoppes hand-embroider the entire bottom of the veil with little butterflies. I thought of it as a beautiful giant net that could catch all the butterfly freedom I wanted in just one place.
When I walked down that aisle, I remember thinking the veil was my wings and the caterpillar would finally become the lovely butterfly. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen that way and soon I was back in the cocoon.
“I’m sorry to hear that. What happened?” I ask, trying not to step on her feelings.
I think I fell into the romance trap. I fell in love hard in high school. As you can see, I’m no beauty queen. People think I’m cute and sweet and that was fine with me, but a lot of boys didn’t want that.
But he did. We were great friends and I was deeply in love with him from the start.
Junior year, we started planning our wedding, so we could get married right after graduation. All my dreams were coming true. I had a perfect man who loved me, a wonderful best friend for a mother and the most fabulous wedding anyone had ever seen. He was my Prince Charming and I was a princess.
I got pregnant right away, and my mother was over the moon. We planned everything together. Maybe that was the problem—there wasn’t enough room for three and definitely not room for four. When I found out I was having a girl, he became less and less interested.
Looking back, he may have thought he would get edged out again by one more woman, so he started searching and found someone else. I really think he wanted to get caught. He would leave his perfume-soaked, lipstick-stained shirts around with motel room receipts in his pockets.
It escalated and, at a certain point; I think he was trying to hurt me. But, of course, I missed everything. I was clueless. I was in love and so enthralled with impending motherhood and having a traditional family that I didn’t see what was right in front of me.
He got more and more brazen and started sleeping with women in our own bed. The last time, I’m pretty sure he did it when he knew I would be home. I was eight months pregnant and when I came into the room; he acted all surprised, but it was on purpose.
It destroyed me. My dream was shattered and I went into premature labor right there. After she left, he called my mother, and she took me to the hospital. He didn’t go. When I got home from the hospital, he was gone for good.
I had to be bedridden for the last month of my pregnancy. Depressed and despondent, at first I had very little will to live. I didn’t even want to eat, but my mother kept telling me, “You’re a mother now. Do what’s right for your baby.”
“That’s just awful. It’s hard to pick yourself up after that blow,” I say.
Mother was right, of course, she always was. My only thought was to keep Ali alive and give her a healthy birth. My mother kept my spirits up and helped me focus on Ali. It worked. She was a beautiful baby. When we took Ali home, mother doted on her, dressing her up and playing with her.
I guess family patterns are hard to break. My father left my mother when I was five years old. I barely remember him. She always said staying in one place with one woman wasn’t for him. She wasn’t bitter about it or anything. She had me and I had her. Just like me and Ali.
Ali’s father left her too. So just like my mother, I want to be mother, father, sister, brother and friend to Ali. My mom and I were best friends—maybe it’s a curse of strong mother-daughter bonds to ward off any men who try to be in our close-knit circle. But I don’t regret my marriage for one minute. I got Ali out of it.
My one and only important goal in life is to be Ali’s mom. I guess that’s why I worry about the lines of friend and mother blurring. My mother was stronger. I’m not. I just want to be a good mom to Ali.
I love my job of being a mother and I love my other job. I get to help other brides make their day special, like Ken and Ron. They’ll be here soon.
After this interview, I need to amend my view of Becky. She’s complicated. In my usual equation of people to food, Becky is cotton candy—sweet and delicate, but if you squish her, she holds together.
(C) Suzanne Rudd Hamilton 2023