Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Widow's Story

Earlier this week my book club discussed Joyce Carol Oates' memoir, A Widow's Story, which I reviewed for FYI Forever Young last year. I was impressed by the memoir, which traces the course of Oates' grief after the death of Raymond Smith, her husband of forty-seven years. They were a well-known literary and academic couple. She is a prolific novelist who teaches at Princeton University; he was a professor and publisher of the now defunct Ontario Review. He was in hospital for pneumonia and recovering well when he was swept away in February 2008 by a secondary infection.

The turbulent feelings that Oates experienced struck a chord with me, although she is in her seventies, and when my first husband died in 1976, I was thirty and Ed and I had only been married for eight years. Oates writes about the raw wild feelings characteristic of the first few months of widowhood. I could relate to her feeling that certain situations and places were "sink holes", to be avoided because they stirred up too much emotion

"The first job of a widow is to stay alive," she wrote. Oates kept a journal, and, by using her diary entries as the basis for this memoir, created a sense of immediacy.

I was somewhat surprised by my fellow book club members' reaction. Like one reviewer of Oates' book, they felt that the ending, in which Oates hints that she has found a new love, undercut and negated the entire memoir.

Perhaps they were looking for a "how to" manual on coping with bereavement. Oates remarried thirteen months after her first husband's death. To some of my book club pals, remarriage indicated that she was a dependent person who had given up trying to heal and couldn't cope on her own.

Oates responded to negative reaction in a letter to the New York Review of Books. (see She wrote, in part:

"....[S]ince nothing seems to arouse reproach in reviewers quite so much as the possiblity that the memoirist is less miserable at the time of writing and afterwards than she was at the time of the experience about which she is writing, it is only sensible to include an appendix to remedy this, which I will hope to do."

In a society where half of all marriages end in divorce, many people probably cannot relate to those who are widowed. Readers living on their own after a marriage breakdown probably think that a widowed person should take a course or read a self-help book on "surviving the loss of a love" and should "snap out of it" and learn how to cope without a partner. They assume that splitting up is the same as losing a spouse to death. I disagree.

I remember being at a workshop listening to the coordinator of women's programs at a community college tell her audience that she and her husband had broken up after a "long marriage" - of five years! At the time, Roger and I had been married for about twenty years. Nowadays, maybe the idea of a marriage which lasted happily for forty-seven years boggles the mind and sounds freakish to some people.

When I was a young widow, several people shared their opinions as to what I should do with my life, not realizing that for awhile I was too drained of energy to take action, even if their suggestions had suited me in any way. This sort of thing happened too Oates' too.

I suspect many readers are jealous of Oates for finding love again in her seventies. When I married Roger two years after my first husband's death, several people reacted in interesting ways. One said she didn't know it was possible to get a "second chance" at age 33. (Such a ripe old age - 33!)

Then there was the "friend" who might have befriended me, when I was alone and racked with grief and loneliness, by inviting me over for a coffee or even a meal with her husband and kids. She didn't. When Roger and I got married, however, I was suddenly socially acceptable again. She thought Roger and I and she and her husband were going to be good friends and visit back and forth. That didn't happen.

When I was a teenager, a sixtyish widowed acquaintance of mine was being courted by a gentleman caller. Her sister, who had never married, thought that the very idea of her seeing this man socially was ridiculous, and claimed that she was dishonouring the memory of her first husband (who had died many years earlier.) The widow confided to me that, if one had been happily married once, it was natural to believe that one could find happiness again. To her, remarriage was about happiness, not dependency. She and the man didn't get married, but she enjoyed going out with him.

I still admire A Widow's Story, no matter what the book clubbers said.

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