The Blue Dress
Always carry the body out feet first. Then the dead can’t beckon the living to follow them to the grave. Elisabeth knew this tradition all too well. Her mother always told her that tradition told her how to mourn and superstition told her what would happen if we did not. Elisabeth had already watched two of her loved ones carried out those towering doors on their way to the grave. Now, with her third family member, second beloved child, to die all too young, she seemed to believe this superstition. People living in her home were all being beckoned to the grave far too early. The dead were knocking at the right door.
It had been three weeks since the accident. She was writing a letter to her sister discussing the new colors of this season and how she had admired them. She had been planning to make a few new dresses for her daughters to wear at their first dinner party of the summer. The colors, the blues, greens, and light pinks went perfectly with her daughters’ fair skin, which was so much different from her own, slightly tanned and worn. She thought about the possibility of bringing color back into her life. The seasons colors complimented her skin and dark hair better than the black and dark colors she had been wearing for far too long. She thought it might be time to start acting like her husband’s wife again, not his widow.
Elisabeth was finishing the letter when she heard the explosion, the glass shattering, and the scream of her middle daughter, Nora. She dropped everything and ran out to the hall, where she saw her daughter standing, in shock. Nora caught a glimpse of her reflection in her sister’s mirror. Nora stood frozen as she saw the fire eating away at her body. Elisabeth quickly grabbed the blanket off her bed and wrapped it around Nora, smothering out the flames.
The next three weeks were filled with late nights, well wishes, prayers and empty promises of recovery. The amount of letters the family received were only less numerous than the prayers said on Elisabeth’s kneeling bench and at her daughter’s bedside. Questions ran through her head, “Why didn’t I tell her about the broken spout on the light?” “Why didn’t I just follow tradition instead of thinking about summer colors?” “How could I have done this to my family?” Elisabeth’s old wounds of guilt had re opened.
Then the night came when Nora let go. Elisabeth hadn’t been there. She had been in town, speaking with the pastor about superstition and death. When she arrived home, the doctor told her the news. Elisabeth collapsed in the front hall. With the help of her oldest daughter, Hattie, she was moved to the sitting room, where she remained for hours in a tearful, but silent agony.
The doctor told her it had been dehydration that eventually killed her daughter. It had been a result of breathing in the flames and burning oil. She was burned internally, incurable. The lamp had exploded because the spout had a small hole and the oil slipped out. The flame caught the oil and caused the explosion of both the lamp and the oilcan. Nora had just returned home from boarding school. She didn’t know about the leak. She didn’t know that no one was supposed to use that spout.
There had been a three-day, constant vigil in the parlor. The coffin was placed in the center of the room with chairs placed around the walls, facing the body. Candles were lit all day and all night. Nora was never left alone. When Elisabeth or one of her daughters could not be praying over her, there was a maid or servant sent in to pray and tend to the needs of the dead. Most of the servants had been working for the family for years, so they took this opportunity to mourn Nora.
Now that the vigil was finished, the final goodbyes had taken place, and the private funeral had ended, it was time to move the body to its final resting place. Two of Nora’s uncles, the family butler, and a family friend, wearing their white gloves and white capes, carried her coffin through the doorway. They would take her down the front walk, and into the black hearse, draped in black crape. She would be taken through town to the family plot and make her place next to her brother, across from her father.
As Elisabeth followed the party out the doors, she remembered that all their troubles had begun with these doors. These doors were the reason why death had found their home. These doors were why superstition wandered their halls and ruined their lives. Elisabeth knew that she was the reason why this had happened. This was all her fault. She had been a young wife, grief stricken and careless. She did all she could to make sure that everything went perfectly and followed tradition. She had forgotten about the door.
Elisabeth caught a glimpse of the white ribbon tied to the doorbell as she left the house. A white ribbon means a child has died. Nora was only a child, in her young teens. This wasn’t the first white ribbon to be tied around the doorbell. An even younger child had died only two years earlier.
Isaac had always been a sick child. From the first few weeks of his life, he had a raging cough and a rampant fever. It always seemed that as soon as he was cured of one aliment it was only a week or so before he was plagued with another. Elisabeth had always tried to remember the times when he was healthy. It wasn’t until he was three that he was able to stay healthier longer. He was finally able to play like any normal boy.
His healthy days were filled with warm days outside, cold days in his room playing with his toys, and rainy days learning new tricks from the servants. Most afternoons were spent in the sitting room with the family, playing games with his father and the dog. Those were always good days, even if some of them ended in tears. Elisabeth had always thought how fortunate Isaac was to have been sick on the day his father died. He didn’t have to watch him suffer. He didn’t have to know what was going on. He had been so fortunately sick that he had missed the funeral. He had been left with only the good memories.
Once Isaac had returned to health after his father’s funeral, everything had changed. His father was gone, Elisabeth was a distant figure in black and his siblings had been grieving. He was still a happy boy. This only pushed Elisabeth further away in her grief, sadness, and guilt. She loved her son, but she couldn’t handle his questions and happy nature, so he stayed with the servant.
Three years later, on a warm early spring day, the family had decided to picnic on the lawn. Isaac had been healthy for three weeks, so he spent most of the afternoon running around the lawn after the dogs, while his sisters were entertaining some of their visiting friends with a few lawn games. Elisabeth sat in a chair watching the games because she was not able to participate while wearing mourning. She entertained herself in the sun, chaperoning the older children. Isaac’s running games were chaperoned by a servant. This proved to be a challenge because before the end of the first game of tennis, Isaac had managed to chase the dog into the pond. The servant had frantically fished him out unharmed, but in his soaked clothes, he had caught a cold.
This cold did not waste any time before it became severe. By dinner, Isaac was unconscious with fever. He was so bad that Elisabeth had to dismiss all the guests and call the doctor. The doctor said that if he did not burn off this fever by morning, he might not make it to the next afternoon. Elisabeth sat next to him all night wiping the sweat off his forehead, making him sip water, and praying that he would get better. All night she had a wrenching feeling in her stomach. She knew that this was all her fault. She knew that superstition had finally taken its first victim. Death had made his mark here by punishing her for breaking tradition. She thought to herself that she should have been paying better attention that day so many years ago. She thought that she should be the one that was dying for her mistake. Her prayers for her son weren’t answered. Isaac passed away a little before noon the next day.
After Isaac’s funeral, Elisabeth had hoped that she would never have to see the white ribbon on her door ever again. She had prayed and begged God that Isaac’s death was enough of a payment to Death to make up for her mistake in the past. However, as she passed the doorbell, following Nora’s coffin, a twinge of sadness pulled at her stomach as she remembered Isaac and his futile sacrifice for the family. Elisabeth had had enough, so in a very uncustomary fashion, she turned around and pulled the white ribbon off the doorbell. As she went back to her place in the precession, she wrapped the ribbon around her hand and touched it to her face. Her daughter, Mary, wrapped her arm around her.
Nora was placed in the hearse and the procession of carriages followed. As the carriage pulled away, Elisabeth looked at her home, once again covered in black and white crape, the public display of a family death. Elisabeth hated seeing her house decorated this way, it made the home feel empty, dark, and far too quiet, but the crape was customary. It was something she had to do according to tradition. The crape always reminded her of the summer her husband died. The day Elisabeth had cursed her family.
Elisabeth and Benjamin had met when she was living in Chicago. She had only been living there a few months because she moved around frequently with her father. Benjamin knew that he didn’t have much time to woo her, but he made sure that he would try his best. His best worked and they were engaged by time her father had to move to his next post two years later. They were married that summer.
Benjamin and Elisabeth Wright moved into their beautiful home in the northern Midwest after a wonderful honeymoon in Europe. They had their first daughter, Hattie, shortly after they moved in. Three years later, they had Nora. A year later Mary arrived. They lived a wonderful life of traveling, parties, and entertaining at their estate. Benjamin, as wealthy businessman, was able to work from his home office, so he would be able to spend as much time as he wanted with his family. All of his girls adored him for that.
Eight years after Mary was born, Elisabeth had Isaac. Benjamin loved his children and Elisabeth loved watching him with them. When Isaac was three years-old, after a seemingly normal rainy spring day, Benjamin had caught a fever and was forced to spend the rest of the day in bed. Elisabeth thought that he had gotten something from Isaac, who was also sick, or that he had gotten a cold from the weather, but soon Benjamin complained about a horrible pain on his left side, which was unusual for a cold. As soon as he began to vomit, Elisabeth called for the doctor.
The doctor did not know what was wrong with Benjamin, but gave him what pain medication he could, but it did not help. The Doctor told Elisabeth to inform him if anything changed with Benjamin’s condition. She asked the doctor if he could stay to help keep an eye on Benjamin, but the doctor did not think that his sickness was that extreme, possibly only a heavy fit of the flu. The doctor left. Elisabeth stayed close to Benjamin, whose condition only got worse. By midnight, he asked to see the children. Elisabeth knew that he did not think he was going to make it, but she did not want to admit it. As soon as he had finished seeing the kids, not even hinting to them about how bad he actually was, she sent them to bed and demanded that the doctor returned. However, the doctor couldn’t do anything to help. Benjamin had passed away the following day.
Elisabeth didn’t know how to handle this tragedy. Normally she would be assisted by family members, but due to the constant raining and storming, the roads were impossible for carriages to pass, so they were all stranded. Elisabeth had to put everything together on her own. She had to set up the vigil, set up the rooms, inform everyone of the death, and make sure that the house was decorated properly. Benjamin had been waked in the house, just as Isaac and Nora would be, but because of his status in the area, he would also have a public funeral and wake in the house. This was a close casket, as was tradition, but allowed everyone to say goodbye.
Finally, after a three-day vigil in his home, Benjamin was moved from the house for the last time. Because of the rain, his brothers and sister, who lived a day’s ride away, could not make it to help move Benjamin to the gravesite. They didn’t know if they would be able to make it to the funeral at all. This meant that Elisabeth had to ask Mr. Waters, the estate manager, Mr. Sanders, the gardener, Mr. Grant, the butler and one of other male servant to help move Benjamin to the Hearse.
Elisabeth made sure that they were dressed properly with black capes and black gloves. She made sure that they were careful that they didn’t knock down any candles or religions items as they left the room. She even made sure that the mirror in the front hall was covered so Benjamin’s spirit would not be trapped. But what Elisabeth hadn’t made sure of was that she could handle watching her husband carried out of their home. Once the men lifted the coffin, she realized that this was the last time he would ever be in this room. She realized that this was the last time he would ever be in this house. She broke down crying. Hattie, who had also begun to cry, tried to comfort her mother and helped her up as they followed the procession out to the hearse. As Hattie and Elisabeth turned the corner, out of the parlor into the front hall Elisabeth had looked at the door and gasped in horror.
Elisabeth was only superstitions about one topic, death. She always feared death. This fear is what kept her to her mourning traditions. This fear is what made her immobile when she realized that they had accidentally carried out Benjamin’s coffin headfirst. This fear is what convinced her that she had failed. She was convinced that her lack of following tradition had cursed her family. Death had arrived at her door calling out to the living to follow him.
The funeral and buried finished according to tradition. The house was draped in black for a month. Elisabeth was prepared to be draped in black for five years. She didn’t know if she was prepared to handle her curse.
When the carriages arrived at the cemetery for Nora’s burial, the family and close friends followed the coffin to the gravesite. The pastor said a few words and sprinkled the first pieces of dirt on the grave. The guests left and the family was supposed to follow. Elisabeth, however, didn’t want to leave just then. She felt that she had brought this on Nora. She felt that her curse was the reason for Nora’s accident. She knew that she couldn’t leave Nora yet. She owed her more than that. She owed her family more than that. She kept Hattie and Mary by her side looking at Nora, Isaac, and Benjamin’s graves. It was almost poetic.
“Our family is together.” She said quietly. “Please forgive me. Please, God, forgive me.”
Two years later, Elisabeth was in her dressing room with her seamstress. Hattie was being fitted for a new day dress for the season. The dress was a beautiful blush rose color that looked beautiful with her light brown hair and green eyes. Mary finished trying on her new light green dress. Elisabeth loved this time of year because she could see how happy her daughters were when they got their new dresses.
This was Hattie’s last summer at the house. She was getting married in October. Elisabeth knew that Hattie and her fiancé, John Matthews, would be happy in their new life. They were moving to the east coast where John had a position at his father’s law firm. Hattie moving so far away was difficult for Elisabeth, but it only made her last summer at home cherished.
Mary wanted to make this summer the best summer at the house. She wanted to plan parties and events. She wanted to fill the house with guests as often as possible. Elisabeth laughed knowing that Mary was hoping to find a John for herself. She knew that it wouldn’t be too long before Mary found a man that would make her as happy as John made her sister or as Benjamin had made Elisabeth. Then she would leave Elisabeth as well. Elisabeth would be alone, but that was a punishment she had come to accept.
Once Hattie was finished being fitted, the seamstress packed up the unfinished dresses, but instead of taking her things to leave, she pulled out a beautiful rich blue colored fabric. Elisabeth fell in love with the color as soon as she saw it. She picked it up. It was lightweight, and flowed. It was perfect for a summer dress, she thought. She held it up to herself in the mirror and admired how she looked with is wrapped around her.
“What dress is this for?” She asked.
“I think it is time for you to escape your dark wardrobe, Mrs. Wright.” Her seamstress replied.
Elisabeth smiled. She had been in mourning for seven years. According to tradition, she could remove her mourning wear. Although Elisabeth did not feel she deserved to end her public mourning, she knew not to break tradition. She would spend her summer in the perfect blue dress.