Learning To Be A Widow
(originally published in the Boston Globe, July 18, 2010)
I am trying to learn how to be a widow, but it isn’t going well.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the various identities I’ve held over the years, or more precisely, my status, defined in one dictionary as that set of circumstances that characterize a person at a given time. Until I was 24 years old, my status was single. In my day, you were approaching spinsterhood at the age of 24, and so I became a married woman just in the nick of time. In my late 30s, I changed my status to divorced and stayed that way for many, many years. Luckily for me, by the time I became a divorcee there was no longer a stigma attached to the term, as there had been for the generation before me. Divorce was acceptable and it seemed everyone was doing it.
Happily, in my 63rd year I met the love for whom I had waited more than 25 years, and two years later, we became husband and wife. So my status changed back to married. Couplehood suited me and I found again the joy of sharing my life with someone. Sadly, a little more than a year ago I lost Franco, and now I am not only single again, but also a widow, a designation completely foreign to me. Although it keeps confronting me in so many contexts, the term never seems to fit.
First of all, it’s the word itself. “Widow” makes me think of a woman in a long black dress, a length of black shawl trailing over her shoulders, sweeping through the dusty road of a 19th century village. Or she might be looking out to sea from her perch on a widow’s walk. Sometimes the word conjures up the specter of the black widow spider. There’s even a card game called widow. In printing, the last short line of a paragraph sitting by itself at the top of a page is called a widow. Meaning the one still left, alone.
Certainly, it is a term only for very, very old people. It can’t be for me.
A reminder of my new status is the steady stream of official forms that confronts me. When the Watertown census form arrived, I did not fill it out because I could not bear to write that Franco was deceased. Then the US census form came. The last time it showed up, 10 years ago, I was happily married, and there were two of us in this household; now I can list only one. Last year, on my income tax form, I was married filing jointly; this April I had to check the single box. I recently started working Friday evenings; it helps me to get out in the world as a hostess at Stellina’s, my favorite restaurant. For that I had to fill out a W-4 form and there was a choice of only two boxes to check: married or single.
There is still more paperwork that recalls my widowhood. Magazines and catalogs and invitations and political postcards and solicitations from charities keep arriving addressed to Franco. I don’t know whether to write back and tell them to change the name or just let the mail keep coming, so I can still see his name as often as possible. What do I do about the museum and all those theaters and musical associations that send their notices to Franco and Gwen?
More new designations appear with the many appointments I am obliged to make: the Social Security office, the bank, the lawyer, the estate account, the financial manager, the health care plan. I am the executor of the estate and must file all kinds of forms and sign a lot of checks on which I write “Executrix.” I have to change the bank account from “joint” to “individual.” The health care company asks me to change our plan from “joint” to “survivor.”
I wait in the Social Security office while the employee speaks on the phone to her superior about my new status:
“The husband is deceased,” she says, “and the widow is here with me now.”
I wince. Is that me? I wonder how long it takes to get used to that word.