Yesterday I was reading the Complaint Box feature in the New York Times online. The writer was griping about how common it has become for salesclerks and receptionists to rhetorically ask “How ya doin” without expecting or desiring any answer. She found the inquiry false.
This generated a flurry of comments, which quite often raises more interesting points than the original article. (The same is true here at Mothers of Brothers, so please, keep those comments coming!)
The comment that really struck me must have come from an old man, or maybe a nostalgic younger man, or maybe an elderly European, because his observation was that he really wishes armbands for those in mourning would come back in fashion. This silent but public declaration of grief was not only a way of announcing “I have just experienced a terrible loss,” he pointed out, it was also a way to prevent bumblers from cheerily asking “How ya doin?” or sending you out of the shop with a “Have a nice day!”
I had never thought of those elaborate mourning rituals as serving such a practical, but subtle, purpose: creating a force field to shield the vulnerable from ignorant utterances.
People wear T-shirts proclaiming their loyalty to this cause or that product, this college or that sports team. Bumper stickers hype whirled peas, Sarah Palin, honor students, and Little League. From these personal billboards, we get clues about other people’s likes and dislikes all the time. But what about what has happened to them? What explains a sad demeanor, an angry scowl? That, we often don’t know.
When Victorians suffered a death in the family, they were very big on public symbology and ritual. Even babies, children and servants were required to wear strictly regulated colors and fabrics for rigid periods of time following a death in the family. Only certain pieces of jewelry were appropriate for those in grieving. I have my great-grandmother’s jet bead necklace with a black cameo pendant – perfect, apparently, for wear in the second year after a death (half-mourning).
Queen Victoria, of course, was famous for wearing widow’s weeds for all the decades between her husband’s death and her own. People used to cover mirrors, hang black ribbons on front doors, decorate graves, take photos of the dead, make jewelry from locks of the loved one’s hair - and wear armbands.
I mentioned this armband idea at a dinner party last night, and one of the women there said how much she had needed a public “give me a break” symbol during her husband’s recent and terribly dire hospitalization. As she tried to drive into the hospital parking garage, another driver honked and shouted at her over a perceived lane-changing transgression. Already terrified for her husband, she was now so rattled by the hateful hostility of a stranger that she found herself sobbing as she parked the car.
How nice it would have been if the other driver had understood her plight, simmered down, and shown a little compassion. We debated how this could have been telegraphed: maybe hospitals should give magnetic car-door signs out to the families of patients reading “My loved one is in the ICU, please be extra kind to me.” Maybe a temporary bumper sticker would do the same trick.
Or, to use the armband idea, perhaps a red one would signify the “Give me a pass, I’m worried sick and I can’t stand any further aggravation.”
I like the idea. It would be such a simple but powerful way of saying “Here’s what is going on in my personal life. Please act accordingly.” Twitter may be able to reach everyone you can’t see, but an armband would reach the real people you actually cross paths with in the course of a day.Assignment: In designing color-coded armbands, what hues would you use for what message/s?