The picture that comes to my mind when I think of the work “widow” is the last scene in the movie Zorba the Greek where shriveled old ladies in black are waiting for one of the other characters to die, and once she breathes her last, they strip her room of all its furnishings and valuables like vultures. I also think about my Nana’s widowed friends who wore black. All of those old women were stiffly corseted, wore their hair pulled back in a bun, and were completely unapproachable. Who wants to be like that?
Where are the widows my age anyway? They seem to disappear. Are they like I was, wanting to join the world of the “single” for a while? Are they grieving and wish they were in a hajib to hide from the world? Or are they simply ignored? If we have so much trouble figuring out our role now and how we fit in, that might be equally hard for our friends and family.
Our society doesn’t have a place for widows. We don’t venerate old people, and most widows are not young. If a young, single woman has little status, how much worse is it for a mature woman whose husband has died. The cult of materialism and sexuality that plagues our teenage daughters with its ubiquitousness has its negative counterpart toward the end of life when we are past the age of bearing children and no longer major consumers or objects of sexuality. As my sister says when I worry about how I look, “No one cares, no one is looking.” Of course, that’s also quite liberating.
Then there’s also the death thing. I have had the experience of mentioning my late husband, or saying that he died, only to see people give me a blank look, look nervous because they don’t know what to say, or walk away. When I mention him it’s related to the conversation in some way, and I’m not sad about it. But that doesn’t seem to matter. It often stops people cold. What do I say now? I think they’re muttering to themselves. Our society is still largely in denial about death. This attitude is unfortunate, because one widow I know mentioned how important it is to her to be able to talk about her husband to others. They are still a part of us, a part of our lives. And we remember them fondly, for the most part. It’s closing a part of us off when we feel that we can’t talk about them.
Society doesn’t want to know about us because they don’t know what to do with us. They might be afraid of us. There’s the stereotype of the widow who’s out to get somebody else’s husband. Whether it’s true or not makes some married women anxious about spending time with a widow, especially if their husband is around. Also, most of us are not big consumers, so we’re not a sales target except for pharmaceuticals. We’re receiving social security; that might frighten or annoy those worried about having enough money left when it’s their turn.
Here’s a bit of anecdotal reality. Some of us take care of grandchildren. Many of us are politically active. Many of us are still in the work force. A lot of us volunteer for community events. We like to hike, swim, play music, and sing.
Maybe there’s a widow counterpart to the Grey Panthers. The Black Widow? I don’t think so. Widowhood is like other issues we’ve had to face. It’s up to us to value ourselves before we can expect others to. Maybe that’s why it drives me crazy when I hear older women titter and laugh at a comment that is serious, or treat themselves as who, me? I’m not important. Or say “sorry” all the time. Sorry for what? Being alive?
It’s time those of us who are widows own it and stand up for our place in society. After all, the definition of widow is factual: it means a woman whose spouse has died and who has not remarried. I can own that. It doesn’t take anything away from us as persons. It’s just an item to check off on a form, and doesn’t mean who we are, how we’re supposed to act, or what value we have. We’re widows. And we’re a thousand other things.
A few weeks ago my friend Karen Driscoll invited me to come to her house to pick peaches. It was a little bit of heaven, as you can see from this poem I wrote when I got home.
Come and pick peaches, she emailed.
Leave the land of email and come to the orchard of peach and apple trees.
Women in long sleeves, long pants.
You will come to a timeless place of women picking peaches.
Start with hugs, then walk to a tree.
You might be distracted at times by two small birds with yellow breasts,
by light white clouds in a New Mexico blue sky.
You will see a tree so covered with deep scarlet-skin peaches you won’t believe they aren’t yet ready to be picked.
You will hear words of ripe, sweet, crunchy, smooth, juicy,
some talk of canning, freezing or pies.
Come to pick full boxes of peaches to take home
to ripen, to cook, to eat.
Come to a morning of heaven.
I believe it’s common to unexpectedly think you see a person you have lost. Today I’m posting a poem a wrote about thinking I saw Jim when I was riding on the bike path. Bicycles were always a part of our family. Jim rode to Sandia Prep when he taught there, then he opened a bicycle and moped shop, and now our son Charlie makes custom built bikes as O’Leary Built Bicycles. https://olearybuiltbicycles.com/ The picture I’m posting here is of one of the first bicycles Charlie made that he gave to Jim.
The Bike Path
Today your memory surprises me, appearing on the bicycle path
past the duck pond, on the way to the South Valley, a perfect double.
You’re in your prime like they told us we would be in heaven.
It’s true for you. You’re at your best.
It’s the muscles in your legs that get me.
I was always attracted to your body.
From the time you were a boy.
Smooth back curving in, strong legs,
your own walk.
I don’t remember the first time I saw you.
I don’t remember a time I didn’t know you.
One day you were in my life.
You appeared, like today on the bike path.
How I romanticize you, but why not.
Why remember the pain, the sickness,
feelings of failure, of loss, of despair,
when you lost weight, when your body
seemed to fail you, when chemo made you sick.
Of course I remember that. But I also remember
the opposite, and it was just as true, just as real.
Even now, when I think I’m alone
I come upon you.
Today is the anniversary of the day Jim and I were married 56 years ago. It’s been five years now since he passed, and I am just becoming comfortable with calling myself a widow. I don’t know why I was so reluctant. Maybe because in my mind I pictured a bent-over old lady dressed in black from head to toe, shuffling around aimlessly and whose life was essentially over, too. Who would want to be that? Never mind that after he died there were days I felt like wearing a burqa if I had to go out in public. And I wasn’t the Merry Widow because I was in my seventies when Jim died and I wasn’t rich. So I was doing widowhood the way most American widows do, my own way.
Not many women have written about widowhood. I have now because I am ready to own it. The Random House Dictionary has a straightforward definition of widow. A widow is a woman who has lost her husband by death and has not remarried. That’s about as factual as you can get. It doesn’t say anything about how it feels, because it’s different for everyone, or what you should do after, because there are no shoulds, or what your life will be like, because that’s pretty much up to you although it has something to do with the society you come from.
I’ve been thinking about what it means from a personal point of view to be a widow. This is my point of view: daughter of Italian-American immigrants who grew up during the economic boom after WW II in the American Midwest, went to Catholic schools, got married, had two children because we believed in zero population growth and because we didn’t want any more, taught kindergarten, graduated from law school at the age of 41, practiced law in Albuquerque, NM, and spent a lot of time caring for my husband who had a liver transplant when he was 53, which gave him 20 more years to enjoy life and experience a number of debilitating illnesses. It was a mixed bag. It was wonderful. It was heartbreaking. It was living life.
Then I became a widow. And it, too, is heartbreaking, wonderful, and living life.
Among many things I don’t like about being a being a widow and I specifically miss about Jim is how he could talk me down after I’ve had too big a dose of news. Especially now when we have to make a point to find joy in our lives. I needed Jim last night before I went to sleep. After I watched Republicans attack our top FBI Russian spy master and our president attack our NATO allies and of course the latest about the separated children, I slept fitfully and woke with a migraine. During my yoga class I realized I felt as if I should be worrying about all those things, that it’s my job. Then, at COSTCO, I began to realize that those feelings were a sign I needed to slow down and take stock of what I can do something about and what I can’t – just as the Serenity Prayer says.
I’m doing what I can about the political situation. I’m registering young people to vote. I’m voting myself. I’m trying to keep myself on an even keel and to be kind. I’m spending time with family and friends, writing poetry, laughing, and trying to do what Buckminster Fuller said – stand and turn around in a circle and see what needs to be done. He said that if everyone did that, the world would be taken care of. And I think that’s what most of us are doing in these trying times. We have to be there for each other and remind each other . . .
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
As a widow, I have a great desire to believe in life after death. While I sat by my husband, Jim’s, side as he passed away, I felt strongly that the non-physical part of him did not cease to exist. I believe he went to another dimension that I don’t know or understand.
I played a CD for both of us to listen to as I sat there, a favorite song we used to dance to: Louis Armstrong singing A Kiss to Build a Dream On. Two years later, I brought Jim’s ashes to Hawaii. While there, my brother Chuck and I went to a little cafe on the way to Kealekekua Bay on the Big Island. There was no music until we sat down to order. Then I heard Louie singing “Give me one kiss before you leave me and my imagination will make that moment live.” I felt that Jim was with me on my first trip to Hawaii after his death.
Yesterday, the day before Father’s Day, I took my grandson, Shamus, to lunch. We ordered and were waiting for our food to come, watching the World Cup. Then I heard Louie again, singing Kiss to Build a Dream On. I knew Jim was somehow with me and Shamus as we enjoyed lunch together. It was a day I didn’t believe in coincidences.
Here are some affirmations for abundance we’re going to talk about in my Spiritual Economics class tonight.
I establish myself in the limitless substance of God, and I have abundance.
I am the child of a loving, giving, and abundant Parent.
I am a child of the Universe, richly endowed with the fullness of All-Good.
The Universe is on my side; Life is forever biased in my favor.
As much as I can conceive and believe, I can achieve.
I’m excited about teaching a class in Spiritual Economics by Eric Butterworth. At the very beginning of the book he gives his definition of prosperity: “Prosperity is a way of living and thinking, and not just money or things. Poverty is a way of living and thinking, and not just a lack of money or things.”
This quote reminded me of a conversation I had with my mother about inviting more people for dinner. I remember telling her I didn’t think our house was big enough. “Your Nano use to say that your home is as big as your heart,” she told me. That’s the last time I said we didn’t have enough room for someone.
This class begins on September 14 at the Rio Grande Center for Spiritual Living. If you are interested in signing up for the class click here. http://www.riograndecenterforspiritualliving.org/adult-education/ . We have plenty of room.
My Nasty Woman tee shirt got a few glances this morning on my usual walk. I haven’t worn it since the election, because I didn’t want to add to the noise and polarization in the country. But I am so upset with what has happened since the election that I have decided to speak out and to encourage other like-minded grandmothers to join me.
What I’m concerned with today didn’t start with the new administration, but it is aggravated by the new climate of “take care of your own and to hell with everyone else.” Reading the article about the killing of 15 year-old Jordan Edwards in Texas left me with a heavy heart. I have a 16 year-old grandson. It didn’t take much for me to empathize with Jordan’s family. All I know to do today is to say that I care, that I object strenuously to this killing, and that as a “white” grandmother I know that what hurts one child in this country hurts all of us. I am sorry for a culture that allows this to continue.
When my husband of 50 years died after a long period of medical complications following a liver transplant, I was astounded by the emotions I felt that I did not want to talk about. To understand what I was experiencing, I wrote a poem almost every day for two months starting with the day after he died. Some days there were complete poems, some days only a few lines. These pages recount the experience of reflecting on the
life we had together, what is was like to be alone for the first time, and wondering who I would become without Jim. The book is available at Amazon. com .
Here is the first poem.
March 9, 2013
On the day of our 50th wedding anniversary
I had to put sliced cucumbers on my eyes
to shrink the puffiness.
Your feet were hurting.
You felt you couldn’t stand.
But we went to the party
planned by our children.
My eyes were better.
You could stand.
We were showered with blessings,
love and good wishes.
Then, seven months later, you left your body.
Now you’re the light shining in the clouds,
the leaves rustling in the wind,
the river swirling in the eddy.
You’re a paradox.
Here and not here.
You who believed and didn’t.
You had faith in yourself –
in me, in our children.
You were rarely afraid.