It has been a long time since I’ve worked on my memoir. The pursuit of tenure and promotion, and a bit of a health crisis swerve last September threw me off track. I’m finally feeling like writing again, and put these words down today. I’d say “happy reading”, but it’s hardly happy going. Best approached as a reflection of sorts about groping for the uncommon role of widowed new mother — there’s no etiquette book advice on how to combine these roles. As you’ll read, I flubbed the conflation rather badly! (Also, each time I tried to put this in the first person, I hit a road block, so for now it’s a step removed. I think that’s telling in itself…)
She tells everybody he died, but only when they ask about her son’s father.
Most people just assume she is the nanny, acknowledging the impossibility of the boy’s tow-headedness against the mother’s Mediterranean coloring; others see the mother’s smile in the son’s.
She stops telling people about being a widow after an experience on a small propeller plane ride to Cody, Wyoming on Christmas Day. Her four-month old son is squirming in her arms, and she nurses him through the take-off. The man sitting next to her avoids looking at her baby, suckling with loud gasps and coos, until the boy is fast asleep and she has refastened the clip of her nursing bra, one-handed, under her blouse. At that time, the man, noting the wedding ring on her left hand, says, “Are you flying to see grandma?”
She replies, “No, we’re headed to see grandpa.”
The man asks, “Did Daddy have to work on Christmas?”
She speaks bluntly, without thinking, “No, Daddy’s dead.”
It isn’t until she sees the man’s stunned look that she realizes she has committed a social faux pas of sorts. Death should be spoken of in euphemisms, and hushed tones, and with an expression she hasn’t mastered yet. One should look away and down, and perhaps falter over the words, as though they are hard to believe. Baldly stating her widowhood in the same tone as she expressed her preference for pretzels over peanuts to the flight attendant is a social misstep that she, great-granddaughter of the society editor of the Orange Daily News, should have known to avoid.
By the time she realizes what she has said, the man has recovered and composed his features back into that neutral mask that men cultivate and master in adolescence. He expresses his condolences, and asks, “How did he die?”
She has told this story so many times that it has frozen into a fable. There is the setting (ironically, near Death Valley), and the characters, the explosion, and the mystery. She tells it with little grief, reciting the details of the dining room hutch that holds artifacts from their gold mine instead of fine china, the gully (never an arroyo), the use of black powder as the technical name for an explosive, and not simply a description or appearance.
She recites the fate of the two survivors, and then waits. What comes next is the pedestal-ization of bravery. Young widows are sad and silently heroic. She feels neither of these, but simply numb. A baby needs to be fed and diapered and held.
These are the motions of grief.