When I was in my late 30s, everyone died.
I said goodbye over the next few years to my dad, mom, brother, beloved uncle and a dear, dear friend.
My father was the first to go and I found myself in charge of organizing his funeral. Our mom was too overwhelmed and unbeknownst to us also dying. I negotiated cemetery plots, caskets, coffin liners, clothes, flowers, priest, music, obituaries, prayer cards, grave stone design and epitaph. I also wrote the eulogy. Anyone who's ever organized a funeral knows it's a blur of activity. And maybe that's a good thing—being too busy to think and feel for a while. I was happy with my decisions. It would be a nice send-off. But it wasn't until two days before the funeral I realized I had nothing to wear.
Emerging from 1980s New York, after a decade of black designer everything from Eames chairs to La Perla lingerie into 1990s Los Angeles, I vowed I would live this decade in Technicolor. I painted the walls of our old Hollywood apartment a warm Tuscan yellow and filled my closet with rainbow-colored leggings, sundresses splashed with red, orange and blue, purple sweaters—and my favorite, a bright yellow gingham skirt I paired with a Pepsodent-white bustier and platform espadrilles. I kept my promise. Not one item of clothing I owned was black.
I panicked. What were my chances of finding a black dress fit for a summer funeral in Los Angeles? Something cool and elegant but not too conservative because that wasn't me. I headed to the Beverly Center.
Moving through racks of cotton dresses, bathing suits, shorts, T-shirts and white jeans, I found nothing even close to what I needed. What in the hell was I going to do? Sure, this was the '90s and funeral attire had relaxed a bit. People now wore navy blue, dark gray, even prints but I wanted to wear black. I had no idea why. But I was on a mission.
And then I spotted it—in a sea of summer yellow and tropical turquoise—the perfect black dress. It was linen and beautifully cut, with a high-waist—not quite empire—a double-breasted bodice with black buttons, low neckline, long sleeves and tiny, tiny shoulder pads. It skimmed my ankles and the linen, expensive and voluminous, swooshed when I twirled.
Picture this: a floor of colorful summer clothes with a round rack of black dresses plopped right in the middle. Those dresses should not have been there. But the synchronicity of finding them thrilled me. Besides relief, I felt awe and strangely, a sense of peace. And, as many of us do when struggling with grief, I found a way to attribute this magical happening to my dad. He made the perfect dress materialize from beyond the grave.
The dress gave me the courage a few days later to deliver a eulogy, my first, to a packed church. Nine months later, I wore the dress again to my mother's funeral. Sitting in the front pew, I smoothed the black linen over my thighs and sat up straighter. At my brother's funeral, the dress was perfect for a late October graveside service. No need for a coat or even a shawl. The same applied to my uncle's funeral soon after on a gray November day. When I wore the dress to a dear friend's Malibu memorial service, I may have been overdressed amongst the vibrantly colored casual wear, but it was still perfect.
That dress was a salute to my lost loved ones—to these five people who were such an important part of my life. Like those Italian grandmas who, on the death of their husbands, put on black and never took it off, I found solace and comfort in its familiar folds. I stood taller and prouder, more grounded and secure in the knowledge I had made an effort to send the people I loved off in style.
Popular culture needs to destroy the past to keep itself alive. But there is beauty in ritual and tradition. By wearing my black linen funeral dress during what I call the "death years," I connected to a shared human experience all of us will bear witness to at least once in our lives.
I retired the dress after my friend's funeral. A bit faded and long, it went off to the Goodwill and with it, all the tears and sadness of saying goodbye in those dark days.