“Are you seeing someone?”
My friend leaned in as she whispered this. In the old days, this question would’ve sent me running, fearing an impending set-up for a date with somebody’s boyfriend’s jobless cousin. But it’s been over a decade since my husband rescued me from the maw of spinsterhood, and I knew that wasn’t what my friend was asking. “You know,” she stressed, “seeing someone.”
I’d just finished describing my sleeplessness, anxiety, forgetfulness, inability to concentrate, lack of desire to start or finish things, the loss of my senses of direction and timing, and my heightened emotional state – e.g., crying at the conclusion of a Maine Public Broadcasting fund drive. Like reading tea leaves, my friend had swirled those symptoms and come up with a conclusion: I was depressed.
Well, yes and no. I prefer Carrie Fisher’s version. When asked recently if she remembered the heyday of Studio 54 in New York, she responded, “My mind is just cheese.”
Granted, she has her bipolar disorder and electroconvulsive therapy treatments to blame. I only have grieving. I’m still feeling sad about my mother’s death last May. And I’m not in any hurry to stop.
I know that’s not the modern way to address the problem. Calling it a problem and attacking it is. But then, as anyone who knows me will attest, I’m about the least modern, most Victorian person going. And, according to 19th century mores, I still have many tears to shed before I’m done.
To my mind, the Vics had mourning right. Their elaborate set of protocols mostly concerned attire and were aimed at women. (Men were too busy exploiting workers during the Industrial Revolution, and so could get away with just wearing a dark suit.) Women’s mourning garb was black and often covered in crepe, which was constricting and uncomfortable. As a bonus, breathing through crepe veils caused respiratory problems, and the fabric disintegrated in the rain. The only jewelry permitted was made out of a hard, black, coal-like material known as “jet.” If you wanted to floof it up a bit, you could add a flourish of the deceased’s hair (but that, of course, took some pre-planning).
My favorite widow-weeds accessory is what were called “weepers” – long, detachable sleeve cuffs that could be used to wipe one’s nose during crying jags. They’d go really well with my jammie pants and unwashed hair.
On the Victorian death scale, losing a spouse was the pinnacle. One’s bereavement lasted anywhere from one to four years, depending on which etiquette guide you consulted. Or, if you wanted to follow Queen Victoria’s example, you could wear black for the rest of your life. (Can you even imagine?) A close second was the loss of a parent or child, which carried a mourning period of a year or two. Lesser relatives – aunts, uncles, in-laws – rated just months, and when you got into second-cousin-twice-removed territory, you were barely required to dab a tear.
There were two stages of bereavement: deep or full, followed by half- mourning. During the former, social gatherings were forbidden. In the home, curtains were drawn, mirrors were covered and clocks were stopped at the hour of the departed’s death. Black crepe was hung on the front door to signal to the world, “No, I don’t want to sign your TABOR petition. Go away.”
During the half-mourning stage, one could begin “slighting,” meaning you could doff some of those funeral togs and put a little hustle back in your bustle. When you felt ready to reenter society, you distributed calling cards to your acquaintances – the Victorian Era equivalent of starting a Facebook page – and waited for them to start “friending” you. Until that time, people left you (blissfully) alone.
Now, granted, some of those rituals were a bit extreme, even by my standards. I’m sure they didn’t make black crepe with an elastic waistband, and how would I know when Jeopardy was on if all my clocks were stopped? But the customs did allow people the time they needed to process their loss, a long slog that can’t be rushed. And wallowing was not encouraged. The Vics believed it was your duty to the departed to return to the living as soon as you could endure company (presuming you could stand people before your loss). Personally, I think mourning through a year of “firsts” is fair: first holidays, first birthday, first anniversary, etc. After that, it’s time to put your weepers in the closet and get on with it.
So, as 2009 – this annus horribilis, as the Queen Mum would say – closes, I figure I have about six months of head cheese remaining. In the meantime, if I forget your name or don’t return your e-mail or don’t come to your show or shower, I hope you’ll understand.
Now I wonder what I’ll use for an excuse when my year is done.
Elizabeth Peavey did not intend for this column to become a catalog of woe, but then there were many things in this last year she did not expect. She’s ready for 2010.