March is “Women’s History Month.” While it’s gratifying to have any kind of recognition, how about celebrating lesser known women – and for a full 12 months? Give us the “Year of the Lioness.” Fierce females protecting their young.
I’m half jesting (only half) but I do want to proclaim that I’m proud to be a woman. Never prouder than when I interviewed scores of both sexes for my book ”Turning Toward Tomorrow,” about the ways they were coping with the loss of a spouse or partner. Over and over, I heard a similar refrain: while the men sought another partner to fill the empty space, the women looked to themselves and who they could possibly become.
Many women who’d stayed home for years to raise families, were returning to work or finding new paths they hadn’t dared before. Edna had loved being a social worker, but gave it up to stay home and nurse her ill husband for many years. When she was widowed she told me, “With my ‘wife skin’ gone, I needed to get back into my ‘work skin.’“ Easier said than done, because Edna was in her sixties and faced age discrimination – plus municipal budget cuts. Determined to find some way back into her “work community,” she offered to serve on the board of her former company as an unpaid volunteer, and then on the board of a second company. “I began to get a reputation in my field,” she says proudly. So much so that she won a post as the principal representative for the International Federation on Ageing and became a member of several UN committees!
The most stunning story I heard was from a refugee from the former Czechoslovakia. Ivana had married a man from her native town, who wouldn’t allow her to get a job. He was so jealous if another man even looked at her, he forbade her to wear makeup, insisted she keep her hair in a childish ponytail, and dress in “housewife” clothes. When he became ill, she worried he’d lose the profitable contract for a telephone testing system he’d invented. So Ivana secretly learned the details of the project and kept in touch with the executives by phone. Within the week after her husband died, Ivana cut and dyed her hair, bought a sophisticated wardrobe, got a cosmetic makeover and talked the corporation heads into taking a chance on her as the international sales rep for her husband’s project . She then embarked on profitable years of traveling first-class, staying in the best hotels, and meeting with international CEOs. I had originally met her when she was a shy mouse and I couldn’t believe that the stunning confident woman I interviewed could possibly be the same person.
Obviously not every story is that dramatic, but even seemingly small changes can be meaningful. I heard proud reports from widows who’d learned things as simple as dealing with the broker their husband had always spoken with. I recall a former housewife who had depended on her husband to such an extent she’d never even pressed the remote to open the garage door. But now that she’s alone, she says, “I’ve discovered I have hands, too.”
Even refusing to give in to loneliness is victory – which brings me to my mother. In addition to working as a legal secretary until she was 80, my widowed parent refused to succumb to solitary Sundays. Instead, she turned her room into a gathering place for other elderly widows in the residential hotel. Each Sunday afternoon my mother invited them to hear recordings of her opera idols. (“Pavarotti,” she’d breathe worshipfully as if he were a lover.) Despite all the women being extremely hard of hearing they enjoyed the concerts, enhanced by refreshments of cookies – served with whisky! Between her job and her status as a popular host, my mother made her final years triumphant.
As Nora Ephron famously said, “Be the hero of your life, not the victim.” So here’s to all the women who have the strength to go on – and up.
BOOKS: “Widow’s Walk” -available through iUniverse; “Turning TowardTomorrow”- available through xLibris.com; “Ten Women of Valor” – CreateSpace.com orAmazon.com