Putting off my blacks
Two weeks ago Friday, I put off my blacks. That’s an old-fashioned phrase for an old-fashioned gesture, and it’s taken me a while to write about it because it’s taken me a while to work through what I feel and think about it.
After Lisa died, I wore black almost without thinking. It seemed the right thing to do, it suited my mood and my sorrow and it was a way of expressing those feelings without demanding that anybody else do anything about them. It was, I guess, a way of literally putting them outside myself: wearing my grief on my sleeve. After a week, I realized that I needed a ritual of mourning, something I could do for myself, and I knew almost immediately that I would continue wearing black. I would wear something black, not all black because I simply couldn’t afford that, but some major piece of black clothing, every day, and I would do it for a year and a day.
“A year and a day.” It’s an archaic phrase, too, and went with what felt like an archaic gesture. I found myself thinking of the folk song called “The Unquiet Grave” (or “The Restless Dead”), the first verse running through my mind over and over:
I’ll do as much for my true love
As any lover may
I’ll sit and mourn upon her grave
A twelvemonth and a day
In the rest of the song, the true love’s ghost rises from the grave to tell the lover to cut it out, but I wasn’t ready for that part yet.
So for a year and a day, I wore black. I bought a lot of black t-shirts, and was really glad that my warmest dog-walking pullover is black. Every day as I got dressed, I found some piece of black clothing, and thought of Lisa, and felt connected and comforted by the ritual.
And then, all of a sudden, it was May. And it was time to put off the black.
I was, I thought, ready. And yet it was hard to let go of the ritual, even though I was starting to yearn for color. I thought about keeping it going for a while longer, and I thought some more about “The Unquiet Grave,” with its verses about grief keeping the dead from resting, and the living, too, and I decided that it was, indeed, time.
So on the 4th of May, which would have been our 28th anniversary, I put on a bright blue shirt and blue jeans, and not even my socks or my shoes were black. And I wore color for the next few days, and even bought a new green shirt, a springtime, new-leaf green. It’s not that I won’t wear black again - both my good skirts are black, and I’ve still got too many black t-shirts to give them up entirely - but the meaning is different. It’s no longer a gesture, a ritual; I remember Lisa at different times and in different ways. I’m glad, so glad, that I did it, that I literally put my grief on my back every day, that I touched it and planned it and wore it until I wore it out, or at least wore it down. And I’m glad, too, that I reached the ritual’s end. I’ve put off my blacks. I will never entirely put off my grief, but it has changed, and I have changed with it. I am grateful.