Essay: the Yellow Dress

In 1997 grunge still ruled the day. In Indiana, that really meant that nothing changed between 1983 and then. Farmers wore the plaid shirts, their kids probably did listen to Nirvana and have vigil/keggers in the cornfields for Kurt Cobain and Shannon Heun, and the metalheads of the previous decade passed down the T-shirts of their favorite bands to their younger siblings.  I did not participate in either trend – I never so much as curled a bang upward. Most of the time, I couldn’t afford clothing that fit me and I considered it a small miracle at all when something stayed on without ripping.


In 1997 I had just completed my first year of study at Mankato State (to become Minnesota State, Mankato before I graduated.)  I had no car, about four different jobs, and the majority of my clothing came from Salvation Army or what I could grab from Target that did not immediately disintegrate in the wash. All my money went to what I could scrape together for tuition, room, board, and the occasional $2 roll of nickels for nickel night at the Albatross.

There was no asking my parents for help, based on profound dysfunctional reasons, well beyond my control. When my grandfather died, I could either afford to attend the funeral or look appropriate at it. My parents were not going to hand me $40 to buy a black dress.

There was also a factor unknown to most: when I was 18 and my grandfather was still neurologically functional, had asked me not to wear mourning weeds to his funeral. He was explicit – he didn’t want me wearing black or looking somber. He had actually wanted me to wear a red velvet dress he once saw me in, one that was far more inappropriate than the sole light yellow dress I did own at the time of his death.

Besides, a roommate had stolen that dress years before. So I went, wearing the yellow dress and the Land’s End sandals, because it was what I could afford. Several hundred dollars in gas money both ways and 16 hours altogether to Portland, Indiana later I faced a roomful of relatives I only ever heard from when making demands, asking questions about when I planned to finish college, giving my dress the whole judgmental “up and down” look, and in two cases actually following me across the room to attack me for some slight that, under normal circumstances, would require interaction to actually happen.

No one was talking about my grandfather except my grandmother. No one was even looking at or acknowledging her.

Rather than responding in the conciliatory way expected, I responded in the way any sane person would: I walked away. In the case of one cousin I did this while she was mid-sentence.

My relatives responded to my behavior as though I’ve pulled up my yellow skirts and pissed on the corpse. Recognizing that no matter what I did I was going to be attacked, and that I was swimming in an unwarranted pool of rage from people who had never sent me so much as a birthday card but clearly had made some plan for me I had not followed, I decided to do whatever the hell I wanted to – which was what my grandfather had quietly encouraged me to do every time he saw my cousins ostracizing me or treating me like a servant.

The fun part was telling my then boyfriend my uncle was Satan. I hear he’s calmed down but back then? He made Don Draper look like a class act even with the bottle behind the curtain. (If you think Don Draper is classy you have NOT been paying attention.)

I left tired, confused, angered by the people that were much too busy asking me demanding and shitty questions instead of, say, telling me some things I didn’t know about the life of my grandfather. According to my mother, most were angered because I wore a yellow dress.

Crap will happen to you, too.The reality is that I tried to respond to all but two of the conversations politely. In every case, my anger and rudeness was provoked. My uncle had removed the picture of my mother and their sister from the stand displaying my grandfather’s children, so that only he and his children were depicted. His sister had died of multiple bone cancers three years prior; my grandfather had explicitly asked that pictures of ALL his children be displayed at his funeral. So it was more than just his usual narcissistic insult to my family; it was also an insult to the dead…twice. Three times if you count the long talk he gave about what a hero he was for dealing with having a sick dad in lieu of giving a proper euology. I tried to correct that with some real memories about my grandfather, but I started crying, and it’s a cardinal rule I broke: you don’t cry at a funeral attended mainly by narcissistic WASPs. You especially don’t do it when you’re only *half* WASP. Actually, try not to be half WASP. They hate that shit.

I am still disgusted at both my parents for not handling him as he deserved. His daughter had accosted me two years before at our aunts’ funeral, mostly to talk about her car for some reason. It was clear to me that it was all predicated on a subtext of “I have and you don’t,” that failed to account for the way gas-run cars have always offended me. ((I now drive a status vehicle, an EV, in an ironic twist.)) It had been prompted by her father, and to this day I don’t understand what he thought he was going to accomplish with that. It’s not like I ever asked them for anything, and if I wanted to talk to a vapid, self-centeredninny, my own sister served the purpose fine.

I genuinely tried to be polite but I was met with emotional assault everywhere I went at my grandfather’s funeral.

I was beyond relieved to get out of there, back to my life in Minnesota. For months after, my mother and sister would “report” to me that they were “handling” the “trouble” I’d caused. Of course, since no property was damaged, no money lost, and no relationships damaged it’s not like I had one with any of those people – it was just meaningless drama. It gave them something to do, something more to badmouth about me, something more to try to hurt and control me with since they stopped getting their attention feed after I broke up with the black guy.

When my mother phoned eight months later and my grandmother went on the phone, ready to scream at me for making my uncle’s daughter feel rejected – something she had apparently never before experienced, despite dishing out quite a bit – she was perplexed when I answered, sincerely, “good for [Dumbass Cousin],” to my grandmother’s aggressive bragging and explained I was out of breath as I’d just gotten back from my shift at the Battered Women’s shelter.

My mother, in all the badmouthing, had no interest in mentioning that I spent a significant chunk of my waking hours helping women run for their lives.  Not one cousin, aunt, or uncle ever tried to have a talk with me about my behavior. Their instinct was to demand I be controlled by other people. None seemed aware that having such an instinct about any adult is inherently fucked up and abuse behavior. It certainly didn’t occur to a single person to talk to me directly about the incidents.

What they cared about was that I wore a yellow dress to my grandfather’s funeral.

When my own father died in 2009, it was again a long drive, this time from eastern Minnesota to Northwest Indiana.  He had gone to hospice and wanted to spend a few of his last days with me, and after he reassured me his wife was too drugged on Xanax to be her usually safety-threatening nightmare, I took my fiancee and went. He died while I was there, and so the plan to come back for the funeral with the appropriately somber dress hanging in my closet was dashed. I found a black and floral print sweater set dress at Fashion Bug, dowdy enough to satisfy my mother and her best friend.

In an attempt to make small talk while standing in the funeral line with my mother’s old college roommate, whom had greeted me with a guilt trip for “not visiting enough” (her kids were total assholes to me for as long as I can remember, so the idea of seeing them had no appeal), I mentioned that I wished I had the dress I’d intended to wear. I mean,  this lady talked about her grandkids, her daughter in-law, and her effing shoes. She gave me that up-down look that all fat women know and sniffed. “At least this is appropriate,” she said.

Fucking bitch.

All this because, in a moment of poverty, I wore a yellow dress to my grandfather’s funeral.

I strongly suspect the snapping back at people wouldn’t have been remembered if I’d worn something I couldn’t afford in 1997. But then they’d have tantrums because I didn’t go – a convenient Catch 22, usually reserved for woman.

My dad had wanted me to give his eulogy alongside my sister. I refused. He watched all this abuse play out, but because it was his wife’s family and not his, he did nothing. So when he passed, I said nothing. I gave her family no more excuses and leverage for their constant abuse. I gave them nothing.

It was the right choice.