The dress is white, sleeveless, summery. The fabric is decorated with large, orangish flowers — daisies maybe — flowers painted in a way to give the dress more a sense of womanhood than girlhood. It falls just below my knees, or at least it did the last time I wore it. I was 14, and I wore it to my sister’s funeral.
It was one of my favorite dresses in a time when 1) I hated dresses still and 2) I was expected to wear dresses still to church every sunday. This one felt like me, where all other dresses failed to. It was beautiful but not too cliche “girly.” I was a hardcore tomboy at the time, and struggling to find ways to express my femininity in my style. This simple, beautiful dress had colors that were bold, but not pink, had a short length (for the time), but was still allowed in my conservative household, and was lightweight, feeling like summer.
When I was preparing for the funeral, I couldn’t figure out what to wear. The only black dress I owned was a little more formal, more of a “Little Black Dress,” and I’d only worn it to ceremonies and celebrations like my 8th grade graduation. That felt all wrong.
I could wear pants, my mom said. It didn’t have to be a dress. That felt wrong, too, though.
So I looked at my clothes and I saw the dress with bright flowers that felt like me, and I thought, I wonder if this is OK. It was bright like me. It was fiery like Julie. And I was comfortable in it during a week that I desperately needed comfort. My mom said that would be fine.
I wore the dress as I stood at the pulpit on the lower stage of the church, looking out over a sea of black clothes and sad eyes and I read a poem I had written for her.
And I went home and took off the dress and replaced them with my tomboy clothes, which would shortly thereafter be replaced in life by clothes I’d inherited from my sister, which wouldn’t be replaced with my own clothes and my own struggling style for many years.
That day, the dress got put away in the closet, and stayed there. I have purged my life innumerable times by now. Every time I move, or every time I get sick of digging through my closet, I get rid of things. But I’ve always kept that dress. Because years later I still looked at it and saw something of me in it.
“I could still wear that again,” I told myself when I left for college and took the dress with all my other clothes down to San Diego. I’ve told myself that same thing with every move since then.
But yesterday, a donation truck was coming by our house here in Wichita and I was getting things ready for it the night before, and I saw the dress. The dress that I have never worn again. And I put it in the pile.
I think that dress was proof that I knew who I was then. I knew myself at 14. And I lost myself in the tumultuousness of grief and life change and influential people and more grief and more life change and through all of that I’ve been trying to emerge as someone who knows myself and lets others get to know me.
And while it’s taken 12 years, I think I’m there. Not in an “arrived” sense. But even in the little things. Like the fact that I often will post something on pinterest and one of my friends will see it, not realizing I’m the one who posted it, and send it back to me. It shows how well they know me.
Having been sure I’d found myself again, I was able to let go of the dress that had served as a lamp post, a guiding light all these years.
“I’ll never wear it again,” I finally admitted to myself, “it’s the funeral dress. Let’s be real.”
But that wasn’t the point all these years — the point was I was trying to find the girl who’d worn it the last time. The girl who, in a sea of black, wore white and orange. The girl who wrote about grief, and shared it. The girl who was herself in the face of the storm.
I found her. It’s taken over a decade, but she’s back. I’m back. I’m back.
Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.
Other places are
instagram: @jrolicious twitter: @jrohanlon email@example.com