Every princess must have her court.
Mary Pelham’s was made up of eight: Teachers from Stafford High School who every day prepare her for life outside it, the Rappahannock Area YMCA staffers who have known her for years, including a youth director named Karla Edwards who enlisted them all.
They gathered on a bus with a noisy heater that roared over the Disney music Edwards had picked out. Beyond the clouded windows, an early December snow picked up.
A nearby county had canceled its school activities, the libraries had closed, and the forecast was calling for four to six inches, but none of that mattered to Mary’s loyal subjects.
At the front of the bus was a seat covered in white tulle and Cinderella-blue satin, and in a box near the driver’s seat was a roll of red plastic, because every princess must have her throne and a red carpet on which to get there.
Edwards checked the time. Nearly 10 a.m. The princess would be waiting. She put the bus in gear and headed toward the home of Mary, a 16-year-old with Down syndrome who knew only that she was going to be royalty for the day.
“Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” from Disney’s “Frozen” sounded through the bus speakers, but if anyone noticed how fitting it was, they didn’t remark on it.
They were thinking about the girl who loved princesses, and who today would get to be one. Francesca Futia, Mary’s physical education teacher, dabbed the tears that were already slipping from her eyes.
DRESSING LIKE A PRINCESS
She was waiting on the porch with her dad, bundled against the cold, when her chariot rumbled up to the curb and the court disembarked.
Edwards rolled out the red carpet, only to discover it was shorter than she thought. It was no matter; as Mary walked the length of it, Edwards picked it up and moved it farther over the snow-powdered grass until she’d walked the length of the lawn.
Mary stepped onto the bus, through a curtain of white tulle, and took her special seat.
“What’s it like being a princess?” Bailey Vera, a YMCA child care provider, asked Mary. “Are you happy?”
“Yes,” Mary said.
“A little bit happy or a lot happy?”
“A little bit happy,” Mary answered, and they all laughed.
Every princess must have a pretty dress, and they were headed to find one.
Weeks ago, as Edwards, the YMCA youth director, began dreaming up what being a princess for a day might entail, she’d gotten in touch with Macy’s. The department store was providing a $150 gift card for a dress and shoes, and the entourage figured they’d split up to find a few for Mary to try on.
But Mary’s court was as surprised as the princess when a trio of Macy’s workers at Spotsylvania Towne Centre led them to a vast dressing room decorated with a plush pink rug and silver and white ribbons and strings of light bulbs. A chandelier hung from the center of the ceiling, and boxes of shoes sat on a bench and dresses in Mary’s size and fit for a princess filled a rack.
“I’m going to be your personal elf today,” said Nettie Graham, a sales associate who was dressed like one, down to a pair of green shoes, and Mary stuck out her hand and introduced herself as a princess, just as she’d practiced while they’d waited.
Graham does not drive in the snow, she said, except today she did, because like those who already knew Mary, she wouldn’t have missed this for anything.
They started with the shoes, pulling pairs of slippers that sparkled--like the glass ones Cinderella had worn--and fitting them onto Mary’s dainty feet.
Mary chose a pair with bows on the toes, and the courtiers agreed those were the best before turning their attention to the dresses, which were already outfitted with bracelets and necklaces and fur wraps.
“You’re so good,” Sharon Reik, a YMCA child care provider, told Graham as all but Mary’s two teachers filed out of the dressing room they’d squeezed into.
“It doesn’t cost a thing to be kind,” Graham said, and in one sentence she’d summed up what Mary taught everyone she met, without ever trying.
THE INSIDE OUT’
Mary deserved to be a princess, Edwards said in answer to why she’d put all this together. When she’d reached out to Macy’s and to New-U Salon and Family Nail in downtown Fredericksburg where they would end the day, everyone had wanted to help.
“She is happy every day,” said her teacher, Erin Dowd. “She looks at the positive. She’s beautiful from the inside out.”
Dowd paused. “Mary reminds us to enjoy the special moments. The little things.”
Back in the dressing room, she and Futia helped her into her first dress, a blue one. Blue is her favorite color; blue is the hue of Cinderella’s dress at the end of the movie, when her fairy tale has finally come true.
It had cold-shoulder sleeves and was paired with a stole made of white faux fur, and as Mary stepped out of the dressing room, all anyone could say was how beautiful she looked.
There were more dresses: one in Christmas-red with a narrow silver belt, a fitted white one with a keyhole back and gold trim.
“For me?” Mary wanted to know, and Dowd and Futia assured her that they were.
Outside the dressing room, amid racks of women’s suits and blouses, Graham had a hunch.
“It might be hard for her to choose,” she said knowingly, “but I think she’s got her mind on the blue.”
When Mary stepped out for the final time, it was the one she wore.
A FINISHING TOUCH
There was lunch in the mall’s food court, with Mary at the head of the table, because where else would a princess sit. There were visits from Spotsylvania Sheriff’s Office deputies, who shook her hand and gave her a sticker that looked like a badge and posed for a photo, because who would want to miss a chance to meet a princess.
After lunch, the deputies let her sit in one of their vehicles parked inside the mall, and they turned on the lights for her. There was a visit with Santa, where Mary was ushered in through a side gate, because princesses don’t have to wait in line.
Then it was time to go back to Macy’s, where a makeup artist asked Mary whether she wanted something natural or glamorous.
“Cinderella,” Mary said, and the woman seemed to know exactly what she meant.
She had the same answer for Nidal Samad, a stylist at New-U Salon who turned Mary’s straight dark hair into ringlets fit for a princess.
“We’re going to put one more thing on your head,” Edwards said, and Mary sat down again.
Every princess must have a tiara.
It rested on a blue satin pillow made especially for it, light catching in the jewels. Samad placed it on her head.
All of it had been magical--the shoes and the dress, sitting on the arm of Santa’s over-sized chair and learning to wave with a flick of the wrist.
But for the first time that day, Princess Mary was spellbound.
So was everyone else.
Mary reminds us to enjoy the special moments. The little things. —erin dowd, teacher