(In Honor of Spring Cleaning: Seven Days. Seven Dresses. This is Day Two. Day One is here)
What a fabulous dress for a dinner party. Mom gushed when I came out of the dressing room. It was both flattering and modest, black eyelet, which felt like a fascinating contradiction. I felt a little like Jackie O in it, and I had never felt like Jackie O in my natural born life. I hemmed and hawed. It was cheap but still out of my price range and the kind of dress that would look good with pearls. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be the kind of girl who wore a dress that would look good in pearls. I went to hand it back to the saleswoman. Mom took it out of my hands and announced that she was buying it for me. It’s timeless and elegant. No argument.
Here’s the thing: most of the time, you don’t buy a funeral dress knowing that it will be your funeral dress.
GrandJay died a few months later. He made it to not-quite-eighty, an impressive age for a man of extravagant appetites that unsurprisingly felled him. His actual death occurred on the Florida panhandle, in a town with a name—Defuniak Springs—that sounded like it came out of the Southern Novel in golf shirts that was my paternal grandfather personified. His memorial, however, would occur, five-hundred-odd miles away in Bristol, Virginia, where he’d spent a large portion of his adult life.
Mom and I drove over the mountain from Asheville, despite the fact that she and Dad had been divorced for years and crossed the state line from Tennessee about a block from the Episcopal Church. Inside the crowd was already milling with refreshments in the fellowship hall. Dad was there with his new girlfriend. My grandfather’s larger-than-life siblings had all come up from points Deep South and leant the background noise a pervasive Delta drawl. Mom was not the only divorced person in attendance. My Aunt Molly’s ex-husband was there. I hung out with them and one of my favorite cousins until we were called into the church proper.
Like most funerals on my father’s side of the family, GrandJay’s wasn’t a particularly morbid affair. There was no coffin (he’d been cremated), so we were spared the last bewildering gazes at a waxy corpse in heavy make-up. The lay reader who directed the service was my father’s high school best friend, a man about whom I’d heard many scandalous tales, and mostly what I remember was my father, smiling faintly, as he read GrandJay’s letters home from World War II aloud to the audience. My grandfather had always been both a marvelous writer and a legend in his own mind. The young man in those letters, the barrel chested young pilot with the rakish grin and the wild eyebrows, who consciously aped Fitzgerald and Hemingway, in his descriptions of Northern Africa, of Italy, of barely post-war France, who believed he was both a daring hero and a fledgling literary genius? That was my grandfather at his best. If there is a such thing as a tragic flaw it is that GrandJay never recovered from being that young man, and so, it seemed fitting it was that young man we commemorated.
I sat up front with my Dad, the oldest child of the oldest child of man (himself the oldest child) who had died. I didn’t see my grandmother, Betsy, a woman who had hardly shared the same room as my grandfather since their divorce a quarter-century previous, come in the back and hover behind the back row where my mother, my ex-uncle and the rest of the divorced had repaired. My mother says Betsy slipped in just after the service began and exited, a wisp of black and tasteful gold, through the heavy red doors of the church, before the rest followed the priest out to inter GrandJay’s cremated remains in a PO Box-shaped cubby beside his second wife, my step-grandmother, in the church garden.
After the service, we retired to my aunt’s house for canapes and reminiscences, and the mood shifted solidly to cocktail party. I toured pictures strewn across tabletops and over the glossy black of a grand piano, of both handsome young and weathered old Grandfather, while my favorite of his siblings, Aunt Sis, sighed theatrically and made hilariously gruesome predictions about both the family (at large) and the City of New Orleans, where she’d spent most of her life. My cousin and I stole a bottle of wine and barely evaded a winking former congressman who tried to convince us of his (non-existent) resemblance to Sean Connery on our way off the back porch and onto the golf course. There, we sat in the foggy autumn rough, just shy of a pussy-willowed water hazard, to smoke cigarettes and share the bottle, until we’d exchanged the most bizarre and humiliating chapters of our lives since last year and I could hear my mother and my great aunt wondering where I’d got off to in the way that meant, best get back before we come after you.
The dry cleaner was able to get the grass stains off the skirt.
Years passed.I’d pass the dress by and pause when thinking about a dress for an interview, or a cocktail party, but once a dress becomes a funeral dress, it stays a funeral dress.
My Step-Grandfather Jack was 91, also a former pilot and a native of the Deep South (he hailed from Baton Rouge), but otherwise had nothing in common with GrandJay. His funeral, in 2013, was a sweet, congenial affair at a Methodist church in my hometown populated by my stepfather’s extensive sweet, congenial family. I drove to town the day of, barely making the event. I’d had to stop on the way at a box park in Greensboro to buy a cheap pair of conservative black pumps, because I’d drunkenly left my only other pair beside a wedding dance floor in Tennessee the week before. The whole ride home I thought I ought that sounded like the chorus of a country song..
The dress was old by then. I worried I’d be out of style, which felt like the wrong thing to worry about at a funeral. Gather ye fashion trends while ye may, I guess. My mind wandered during the service. Due to deaths and remarriages, I’d had nine grandparents total over the course of my life, though not all at the same time. With my step-grandfather’s death, I was down to three, all grandmothers. I tugged at the waist of the dress—it was fitted, still flattering, but not comfortable, and ominously wondered if I’d still fit into it next time I needed it.
Less than a year later, Betsy, that elegant wisp of a grandmother in black and gold, passed away in a retirement home in Tennessee. She was a few weeks shy of ninety-one.
I rode back over the mountain from Asheville with Dad, this time to a cemetery on the Tennessee side of the Bristol, a couple of miles from where her ex-husbands had occurred the year before. There would only be a graveside service, so we killed time driving past historical landmarks from Betsy’s past. The house that had belonged to her grandmother and grandfather. The house just up the same hill, where she’d grown up, on what was once a rolling expanse of acres, since crowded by tract mansions. The cemetery was just across a divided highway from that house. We met the rest of my aunts and cousins there. They’d all been together. We had not. I couldn’t figure out if that was by Dad’s choice or theirs. My ex-uncle had once again come along. I gave him a hug and reconvened with my cousin, since removed to Silicon Valley, where she’d found considerable success. Otherwise, I felt strangely awkward for reasons I could not understand.
Perhaps because Betsy herself had herself been prickly. She was charming and beautiful, a consummate socialite. She was enormously funny, but often at someone’s expense. I said this about her at the time: “My grandmother had a wicked sense of humor, unparalleled style and a kind of half-glamorous, half-cheeky nonchalance that served her well in all sorts of adventures (whether in Hong Kong or over a particularly heated round of gossip and bourre on the veranda). She was a loyal friend and an often-hilarious dinner guest. Being around Betsy always felt like getting the rare invite to one of the best parties around.” Put another way: being around Betsy didn’t always feel being around your grandmother. In all the good and bad that it entailed.
We convened under one of those green plastic graveside tents because the weather was pigeon gray and the rain needled. She was put to rest in an elaborate coffin, piled with white flowers, but her service was impersonal and performed by the Brylcreem-ed funeral director, while we politely sniffled and mostly avoided eye contact. After five minutes, the whole thing was over. For a woman so inclined toward grand to-dos, Betsy would have found her funeral a real non-event
She was to be buried in her family plot, picked by her own parents (Mam and Daddy Joe) years before after her brother Joe had died in World War II. They had been so undone by Joe’s death that they bought space visible from their own house on the opposite hill and commissioned a large marble angel from Italy to stand at his grave, so they could always look out and see his final resting place. After each of their deaths, Daddy Joe and Mam (respectively) were laid to rest beside him, and it was probably about that time that the divided highway started to develop. Shopping centers and gas stations and fast food joints filled the corridor between the two hills. The cemetery started showing its age. The White Angel became a target for vandals. First they cut off the wings, then the arms, then the head, until surviving members of the family (my grandmother, her brother’s son) removed the rest of the statue, leaving only a scuffed base showing the ghostly shadow of dismembered seraph feet.
I stood beside that base and watched men in jumpsuits being the rough, inelegant work of returning my grandmother to earth. There was no one left in the house across the way to look out at her grave. The cemetery was maybe a couple of miles from the Motor Speedway. Nascar and my grandmother—my entire Bristol family, really, and to be very clear, I was born in Bristol– seemed to exist in two different, completely closed universes. I tried to imagine what her gravesite would sound like on race day. Like the gates of Hell had come screaming open and unleashed the machines. I wondered who would visit her grave. I felt enormously sad. The family all walked to their cars. My aunt gave me an ancient Ferragamo shoe box, these are for you from Betsy, she said. And they all went on about their ways.
Dad and I drove out of town. I sat in the passenger seat and opened the box. It contained four tumblers, two candlesticks, and what appeared to be four sterling silver, monogrammed sporks. I think I started laughing then. I think I laughed all the way to lunch, just the two of us, at a café in Jonesborough, across the street from the place I’d left my black shoes beside a dance floor the year before.
Dad complimented me on the dress.
I told him I’d decided never to wear it again. Three is enough, I said. It’s either officially cursed or officially free of its curse. But I’m not inclined to find out which. He clearly had no idea not what I was talking about but had the good sense not to ask for elaboration.
I wanted to throw it away, because I am the most superstitious variety of atheist, but it was still a nice dress, elegant, flattering, and in surprisingly good condition after fourteen years, so I donated it on the way out of my hometown.
Maybe you found it in the thrift store.