At the end of June, I read two books about widows. One was fiction and the other was non-fiction, an account of a support group developed by an American journalist for widows. The novel, The Lost Husband by Katherine Center, also explores the nature of the support that helps widows. For those for whom stories are more healing, it may be the better choice. Saturday Night Widows by Becky Aikman, on the other hand, uses the account of developing a support group for widows to help the reader understand how six young widows moved beyond their grief.
For those who are wondering why I might have read two books on widowhood within a week or two, my own analysis is that June 29 is my mother’s birthday. My mother passed away last October and so this June 29 was the first birthday without her. My father passed away 46 years ago and my mother had lived most of her life as a widow. I have linked my interest in these two books to the anniversary of my mother’s birth this first birthday after her death and I believe that I am seeking in some way to understand the condition of widowhood which dominated so much of her life. But let me tell you about the books.
The Lost Husband is set in the Texas Hill Country and the first revelation for me was the farm life described in the book. I doubt that I’m alone in thinking of Texas as cattle ranch country, dominated by guns and pick-up trucks – the modern wild West, if you will. The setting, however, is a goat farm and all of the goats are named after famous women: Jane Austen and Harriet Tubman, for example. The goat’s milk is used to make chevre – really, who thinks of going to Texas to eat chevre? The main character, Libby, is a young woman who is forced to live with her mother after her husband’s death leaves her and her two children almost destitute. Her mother’s sister offers her an escape from life at her mother’s, which she accepts. The story of Libby’s renewal after grieving for her husband reminds us how important community and family are for widows and their children, especially the community and family supports that last long after all the casseroles and baking have disappeared. I read this book quickly, losing myself in the humour and pathos of Libby’s life on a Texas farm. I cannot say that this is an enduring classic novel but Ms. Center succeeds in conveying the emotions experienced by a woman “moving on” after the death of her husband and not every author accomplishes this. This is also a book that allows one to consider a difficult topic and family complexities at the same time as it is easily read.
Becky Aikman’s Saturday Night Widows: The Adventures of Six Friends Remaking Their Lives garnered critical acclaim for its account of the support group she developed when she could not find a widows’ support group to meet her needs after her husband died. New York City and its environs is the setting for this book and that locale does influence the culture of the narrative. The book is also useful in outlining steps in the development of a support group and especially selecting participants, as this is a closed group. (The website www.connectgroups.org.au also has useful guidelines and I often provide it as a reference.) Aikman weaves her own story with those of her group’s coparticipants. It is a mark of the success of her group that the members’ real names and histories appear to be used. If you are wondering about the value of a support group of any kind, this book will convince you that it’s a good idea.
I am trying to decide whether it is worth publishing this essay or not and I realize that a great part of concern relates to the stigma of widowhood, which still exists even though we know it’s a problem and that we ought to do something about it. My mother was very much affected by this stigma and yet she never remarried. Because of the difference in incomes of women and men in that era, she made half my father’s wages even though she did the same job. As an adult, she told me that she never wanted any other man than my father to presume to comment on her children or their upbringing. The fact that she gave her children such primacy has always been an example for me, but I have often wondered where she got her support. These two books on widowhood have helped me to understand something of my mother’s life and I am grateful for it.
“Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love.” (Earl Grollman)