Vi telephoned her friend Nora to extend her condolences on the sudden, unexpected death of her long-time husband.
After listening to a sorrowful accounting of the fatal heart attack Vi, thinking to ease her friend’s pain, offered the consolation, “At least he’s resting in peace.”
“Resting in peace!” The voice was angry and indignant. “Yes, he’s resting in peace, and I’m stuck here with all the work, and all these damn bills to be paid and the need to put everything back together again, while he’s resting in peace!”
Caught by surprise, and stunned by such an outburst of resentment, Vi didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Did Nora think her husband deliberately chose to go, instead of being forcibly taken?
After contemplating the situation, Vi broke into laughter, which eased the tension.
Strike the right chord, barriers fall, and true feelings burst through.
My father had a heart attack when he was 50, and passed away a few month later when a blood clot migrated to his lungs. At the time, I was nine and my brother was eleven.
It’s not a stretch to think my grandmother was writing about a conversation she had with her daughter, my mother. While it wasn’t apparent to me at the time, my mother later confessed she wanted a divorce. She was tired of the tedium of marriage and my father’s propensity for working six days a week, and then spending the seventh gardening and doing work around the house.
No doubt, my mother was more resentful of having to deal with his death, selling his garment manufacturing company in downtown Los Angeles, and raising two children than genuine remorse for his departure.
Within a few months of my father passing, my mother resumed her relationship with a man she tempestuously dated and lived with in the 1950’s. Being he was married and considered persona non grata by my mother’s parents, she kept the affair a secret, instructing my brother and I to lie about who was visiting our house, and why my mother disappeared for days (or couldn’t come to the phone).
At the time, my mother’s lover owned a summer/ski camp in Mammoth Lakes, CA. He would visit families (often with my mother in tow), persuading them to send their kids to his second-rate camp.
They continued their secret affair for six or seven years until my mother, brother, and I moved from Southern California to Portland, Oregon.
Nevertheless, after my father’s death, my wise grandmother recognized an opportunity to shape my perception not only of my father, but the concept of death. Even though I lamented the loss of my father, she pointed out the person who loses the most is the departed. For they are denied the opportunity to see their children grow up, get married, and have children of their own. They are also robbed of the satisfaction of looking back on a career, reflecting on accomplishments, and recalling memories of trips, events, and times spent with family and friends.
It’s been over four decades since my father passed, and this year marks, twenty years since my grandmother died. And while, I agree with her assessment of death, I can’t helping believing that the departed continue to see and influence the living. After all, I hear my grandmother’s voice when I share her writings, and some of the luck I’ve experienced in my life, I believe is my desire to make my father proud.
Returning to the final statement of this invocation, I stumbled upon an article my grandmother wrote in a series titled, “Apropos.” She reflects on a conversation with a recent widow, striking the right chord, allowing barriers to fall, and letting true feeling burst forth.
At the house gathering after a funeral, when it is not being morbid to arouse memories of other deaths, I asked a widow of about fifty what she was doing with her life since the death of her husband a year ago.
“Well, I have a job,” she said rather listlessly. “Bookkeeping.”
Did she enjoy it, I asked.
“No, she responded, but it was the best she could get in light of her having not worked in thirty years. Kris, her husband wanted her home with the children, who were now married and out of the house.
With no intent of prying, but to keep the conversation going, I asked, “What do you do in the evenings?”
In an instant, her face took on a miraculous change, becoming alive and glowing. “I belong to a club,” she said. “I joined a few months ago. We have dances and socials, play cards. Some of us go to the theater. Now we’re planning a trip to the Canadian Rockies.” She burst with enthusiasm, boosting, “I’m having a wonderful time!”
She stopped short. Her expression changed to one of puzzlement, and after a moment she continued, “You know,” her voice registered surprise, “I never knew I was such a gadabout.”
Wasn’t she that active during her marriage? No, her husband was a homebody. He loved to read, and liked sports, but as a spectator not a participant. During vacations, they took the kids somewhere, she explained. “I went along with whatever Kris wanted. I didn’t care whether we went or stayed home. I always found something to do. But now, I grab at anything. I never stay home.”
“I wonder,” her face sobered, “what Kris would thing of all my running around?”
“Perhaps,” I said, “this is your true nature, to be active and outgoing. Perhaps you suppressed your own desires during your marriage to be in harmony with your husband. Now that you’re alone, there’s no reason for you to hold back. You’re letting go.”
She thought of that for a while, “You may be right because…” to my regret, we were interrupted and the conversation ended.
Later reflecting on the conversation, I surmised, marriage could change the pattern of one’s natural inclinations. One area could be suppressed, another given expression, and when the reason for the suppression is gone, it comes to the fore.
Nor should any widow or widower feel guilty for grabbing at life. That’s what it’s there for, to be used wisely and prolifically.