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Mourning attire through the years

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

The other day I ran into General Robert E. Lee, along with his wife, and his arch nemesis, General Ulysses S. Grant.

I had just finished a speaking engagement at the TRR Cobb House in Athens, Georgia (Mr. Cobb, among many accomplishments, co-founded the University of Georgia Law School. He died at Fredericksburg defending the Confederate Constitution which he had authored). I was clicking down the solid wood steps of his original home when I stopped six steps from the end. There were, in authentic costumes, folks who portray these important historical figures. They had come a visiting from South Carolina and Kentucky, eager to see the home place of Mr. Cobb. Engaged in conversation with the curator of the Cobb House, Sam Thomas, they were spouting off all kinds of intriguing trivia. I sat down on the steps quietly, just to listen.

Oh, there was lots of good stuff I could share including General Lee's pronouncement that Grant's wife and Jefferson Davis's wife (president of the Confederacy) became best friends after the war ended. But here's what intrigued me most and had me asking questions: The mourning attire of widows during the Civil War period.

General Lee patiently explained that during the first year of deep mourning, the widow wore solid black and dark veils. The second year in "light" mourning, she discarded the veil and could add white to the top of her dress. The third year was "half" mourning and a reintroduction to society. Most widows never remarried and some wore black for the rest of their lives.

"That wasn't true about Dolley Madison," I spouted off, newly informed by a PBS special of her remarriage quickly following her first husband's death.

He raised a grayed eyebrow and tightly replied, "She was a Yankee."

All that got me to thinking about the mourning periods in today's society. Of course, all the "black only dresses" have been discarded for many decades but it seems like most women still do a proper job of mourning their fallen husbands. Most wait an appropriate period before they reemerge in the dating scene.

But men? Now, that's another story. I'm only basing this on what I have seen from men in a certain age group. My sister and I have a friend, widowed for several years, whom we have been trying to find someone for her to date for a couple of years. The pickings had been so poor that we finally took to scouring the obituaries.

"I found the perfect widower!" I announced excitedly. Once I listed his attributes and qualifications, my sister agreed.

"But, listen," I continued. "We need to wait six months before we approach him. We want to be respectful. They were a close couple."

That plan failed like Lee's trip to Gettysburg. In three months, that man was engaged and not looking back. The next eligible widower that came up, I decided that we would decrease the waiting period to three months before we approached him and suggested an introduction.

Within weeks, that man, grief-stricken though he had been, had taken up with a widow and no casserole was going to pry them apart. Like General Lee at Appomattox, we surrendered.

My sister called. "You know, I have about decided that if we're going to find someone for Becky like this, we're gonna have to go to the funeral home and catch 'em before someone else does! Just walk up to the casket and ask them."

We thought that was funny until we found out that some women actually do that. So, we've given up on obituaries and widowers. Too much competition.

From now on, we'll just go down to the courthouse and dig through the divorce filings. It appears that women aren't nearly as interested in the ones who just gave away half of what they had.

Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of What Southern Women Know About Faith. Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her weekly newsletter.