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Divorce - You And Mrs. Grundy

( Originally Published 1952 )

Mrs. Grundy, that prim lady who personifies our code of polite manners and customs, is treated with considerable flippancy in these informal days. The chicken-salad and which-fork-to-use quips have been overworked till they're threadbare, and there is some reason behind this current casualness, for the truth is that a good many of the old rules of etiquette are sufficiently outworn to seem a little silly. But, perhaps curiously, at such very special and important times in our lives as weddings and funerals and the days surrounding them, Mrs. Grundy suddenly resumes her old matriarchal position and most people feel an earnest desire to do what is traditionally correct.

We might add, incidentally, that it is a good idea to know these things anyway. It is one thing not to follow a convention because it doesn't seem important to you; it is quite another thing not to follow it because you don't know any better. The difference is not only apparent to other people, it is also a complete giveaway of your training, either early or through your own later efforts.

In any case, practically every widow wants to know what is customary in her position. She will find that few people believe in the rigid conventions of the past. The matter of wearing mourning, one of the first questions to come up, is an example. There is a lessening in the old strict attitude that would horrify our ancestors of the not-very-remote past, when it was felt that the blacker and grimmer the clothes of the woman unfortunate enough to lose her husband, the better her character. Opinion has swung so far that, today, a widow doesn't have to wear mourning at all, if she doesn't want to—though she usually does so at her husband's funeral, at least.

There are many people who now feel that mourning is a barbaric custom, and many doctors who feel that it has a bad psychological effect, both on the wearer and on those around her. These are legitimate reasons for not wearing what was once called widow's weeds, if you agree with them —which is a very different thing from not knowing what is usual and why. An increasing number of widows go back to their ordinary wardrobes a few days after the funeral, or even the next day, though perhaps still more wear mourning for a short period.

This is a matter for you to decide according to your own feelings, but perhaps you should be warned that mourning, like most customs, does have some reason behind it and that it can save you from some pretty difficult moments during the first period of grief. Not everyone—not even all your best friends—will know of your loss. A few of them are certain to have been away or not to have seen the papers that week, and it is definitely shattering to have one of these come up to you in a public place, greet you enthusiastically, and ask "How's your husband?" in a hearty voice. You'll find too that your black clothes will ward off invitations you don't feel ready to accept. Also, the first time you go to a gathering of any size—a woman's club or a church guild meeting, for instance—the impact of coming face to face with a large number of acquaintances you haven't seen since your husband's death, all of whom would like to say some-thing sympathetic, is hard to take. Perhaps unreasonably, people are more conscious of this and more considerate of what they say if you are dressed in mourning, and you your-self may have a greater sense of loyalty and security. These are all situations that some find more trying than others, but you'd better think about how you will feel when you make your decision.

If you do wear mourning (and, as we have said, most widows do at the funeral, and it is usual for members of the immediate family to do so too), there are a few rules to follow. To get down to dull facts, mourning means all black (or, after the funeral, all white in summer). You may wear a veil or not, as you wish, but the old, long, crape-bordered veil is so seldom seen today that it seems theatrical and ostentatious. Short veils with narrow crape borders are still worn by some, but ordinary veils with simple silk borders, or none at all, are just as correct. After the funeral, crape-bordered veils are practically obsolete and wearing any veil is the same matter of choice that it is at ordinary times. Dull-finished materials, such as crepe, chiffon, jersey, wool, and cottons, are mourning; satins, glossy silks, sequins, and other shiny materials are not. The rule about dull finish as op-posed to shiny applies to trimmings, hats, and shoes. Stockings must be black or sheer, dark gray that gives the effect of black, and no jewelry except pearls, jet, and black costume jewelry (and, of course, your wedding and engagement rings) is really mourning.

There are those who go in for what is called half-mourning, but it is our opinion that either you wear mourning or you don't. Half-mourning combines black and white and may include gray and lavender. To the casual observer, it scarcely suggests mourning, and since the reasons behind the whole custom are to pay respect to the person who is gone and to give protection to the widow, we think it is an unsuccessful compromise and you might as well forget the whole matter as to adopt such halfway measures.

Once upon a time—a very gloomy time—every widow wore mourning a full year and many wore it for two years, lessening it to half-mourning after the first twelve months. Now, the most conventional wouldn't think of wearing it for more than a year and six months are more general. A still briefer period or none at all is accepted without criticism by the understanding, and people are very much more understanding than they used to be. In fact, this has be-come a purely personal matter, the one enduring rule being that extremes of fashion and conspicuous clothes are just plain vulgar. This is definitely not the time for those too-amusing hats and clothes to match, but you probably won't want to wear them anyway.

The matter of writing letters of thanks for flowers sent to the funeral, or in reply to letters of condolence, is a major problem for many widows, but it is one you shouldn't shirk. It is true that they may run into the hundreds, that you are in no state to cope with them, and that every answer you write brings back the consciousness of all you are going through and is newly upsetting. Nevertheless, it has to be done. If the number is large, you should have a system, and our own solution (which no doubt dozens of other people have thought up too) is to have a card catalogue. Friends or members of the family will have taken care of the flowers at the funeral, giving you a list of who sent what, as well as lists of those who called, phoned or telegraphed. Without a catalogue, it's difficult, if not impossible, to remember who is on several lists and which they're on, and it's complicated to check each one for every letter. You are almost certain to

find that you've written a letter of thanks for one kindness without mentioning others that you should have mentioned and to feel that you have to do it all over again. A card for each name, with everything written on it, eliminate this danger, and the making of such a catalogue is something some of the friends who really want to help can do without bothering you.

The custom of sending out engraved cards of acknowledgment is frowned on by the conventional, including some of the etiquette authorities, but it is nevertheless followed by more and more people every week. When the number to be thanked runs into the hundreds, it seems to us entirely permissible, provided that you write a sentence of appreciation, in your own handwriting, on every card except those going to business concerns and therefore impersonal in any case. A very few words are enough. You might write: "Your lovely flowers meant a great deal to me. Thank you for sending them." Or, "Thank you for the beautiful gladioli and the kind thought behind them." Or merely, "Thank you for your kindness and sympathy." But that one sentence really matters. It lets your friends know that you do appreciate the fact that they took the time and the trouble to let you know that they were thinking of you—and you should appreciate it, for if they hadn't, you would have felt very forlorn in-deed. Take your time, however—a long time, if you don't feel up to much at first. Anyone should understand that just now you are busy and harried and not equal to hurrying. But do it in the end.

A problem that will, come up a little later (though we hope not too much later) is when to begin "going out" and where you can go. The answers are simple. For a few months, don't go to large parties or gay public places. Don't dance or go to a night club. Mourning is conspicuous in any of these places, but even if you don't wear mourning, you'll feel conspicuous and wonder who is seeing you and what they think, to say nothing of finding yourself out of the right mood and not very happy. Go by all means to concerts, the theater, and the movies. Dine informally with friends and entertain small groups when you want to. Do, in fact, anything that you would not think unfeeling if you saw someone else in your position do it. If you follow this rule with discrimination, what you do is not only permissible—it's what you ought to do. Sitting at home and brooding is bad for your health from the start and bad for your character in the long run, and not even Mrs. Grundy demands it in this enlightened age.

The divorcee has even less in the way of convention to govern her behavior, since not so many years ago Mrs. Grundy wouldn't have recognized her at all. What etiquette exists for her, therefore, is up-to-date and simple. She keeps her former husband's last name, but not his first, since that would be pretty confusing for everybody concerned if he remarried. Instead, she substitutes her own maiden surname. That is, Mary Howard, divorcing John Jones, be-comes Mrs. Howard Jones. A woman occasionally prefers to use her whole maiden name, as Mary Howard, as if she had never married at all, and there's no law against it, though legal complications might conceivably turn up later unless she has it formally changed, as is easily done. How-ever, if she cares about doing what "is done," she'd better stick to Jones anyway.

Along with his name, she may keep the wedding and engagement rings he gave her, and any other presents she wishes to keep. She should, in fact, continue to wear a wed-ding ring, and practically all divorcees do.

Her most trying problem, particularly if she and her husband go right on living in the same town, is the likelihood of meeting at large gatherings and public places—and what to do then? There is one definite answer. Never make a scene or even allow an awkward moment, if you can pre-vent it. You must speak to each other if you are both guests of the same host or hostess, but you should speak casually and move on quickly to another group of people. You may, of course, be one of the ultramoderns who are still the best of friends with your divorced husband, but even so, it is in far better taste to greet him casually rather than enthusiastically in public, as there are those who find this attitude very odd indeed, to put it mildly. Taking the breaking up of any marriage as lightly as a gay greeting implies is some-thing Mrs. Grundy hasn't gotten round to approving—and it will probably be as well for everybody if she never does.


CASES XIX.: Mrs. Q.—When Mrs. Q. got her divorce, she felt very bitter about the whole matter and didn't want to be reminded of it any more than necessary. She moved to another section of town, made her apartment as different from her former home as possible, and rearranged her life as completely as she knew how.

One small detail, however, bothered her constantly—the question of wearing her wedding and engagement rings. Having been married, she felt that she should wear them and that she wanted to. But eery time she looked at them, they reminded her of events she was trying to forget.

She finally solved the problem by going to her jeweler and turning them in, along with some other odds and ends of jewelry she no longer wore, and spending the money she got for them (and a little more) on a guard ring that she liked and that looked like a wedding ring and a solitaire of quite different type from tier engagement ring. She lost money on the deal, but gained enormously in peace of mind.

CASES XX.: Mrs. L.—After Mr. L's death, Mrs. L. was appalled by the number of letters she had to write. They seemed to her like a problem that no one could help her master and one she couldn't, master herself. Then a friend suggested a solution.

The friend collected two other willing workers, who had been saying they wanted to help for days and really meant it, and they set up two card tables as much out of Mrs. L.'s way as possible and went to work. They not only made a card catalogue, including everyone who had shown some kindness and what they had done, but they also added the addresses—a job in itself, since it meant looking up most of them and telephoning mutual friends for the rest. They then addressed all of the envelopes, stamped them, and arranged than in alphabetical order, ready for Mrs. I.

By this time, Mrs. L. too had a system. After her breakfast (in bed), she had the breakfast tray cleared and pen, ink, blotter, and card catalogue brought to her. She wrote brief, appreciative sentences on as many cards as she could in one hour, then put the whole matter aside till the next day. It took her some weeks to complete the job, but it didn't wear her down as it might have done.

CASE XXI.: Mrs. LeF.—Mrs. LeF. is a woman with dignity, character, and a sense of responsibility. After tier divorce, she found herself confronted with a problem in the shape of Mr. LeF. himself. A much shallower person and a man of moods and temper (along with more serious faults), once his indignation at being divorced had calmed down, he was all for being the best of friends. Mrs. LeF.'s sense of good taste told her that this was a poor idea, but her sense of justice told her that, as is usual, perhaps the fault was not a hundred per cent on one side. There were also some matters that had to be discussed, whatever her preference.

Mrs. LeF. has compromised. She sees Mr. LeF. at well-spaced intervals in her own living room. She does not accept his invitations to the theater or to dine in public places. When they meet at large parties, she talks to him only briefly and never lets it seem to others as though they had come to the party together.

Mr. LeF. occasionally protests this system bitterly, but Mrs. LeF. thinks that his opinion is not so important as taking a stand which shows that, to her at least, marriage is not an off-again-on-again affair, and the breaking up of marriage is not a casual incident.

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