Since March is Women’s History Month, I looked up some famous heroines and was surprised by how many found new roles after they were widowed. Too often we see the death of our spouse or companion as the end of our own story, too. “Life will never be the same,” is a common refrain. Yet a different life may have its own rewards.
Even the hit show “Hamilton” could use a sequel. After Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel, his widow went on to have a historic career. In an era when women retreated to the background dressed in mourning weeds, Eliza Hamilton cofounded the Orphan Asylum Society, the first private orphanage in New York. As the Director, she worked ceaselessly for almost 30 years raising funds to maintain the asylum, while also overseeing the education of more than 700 children.
I also get inspired by women who refuse to be defeated by age. The American artist Grandma Moses was a farmer’s wife and a mother for decades. After her husband’s death, she went back to her long abandoned enthusiasm for painting and became recognized as an artist in her seventies. Her highest-paid work sold for $1.2 million! Painting was easier for her arthritic hands than baking, she told an interviewer. When her right hand could no longer function well, she taught herself to paint with her left hand – and continued her career until two days before her 101st birthday.
Women who add new chapters to their lives don’t just exist in the arts and politics. Sometimes they’re quietly nearby. I have a neighbor who was widowed about five years ago. All I knew about her was that she had taught “English As A Second Language.”. Actually after her husband died she didn’t seem very visible. I now know she was making solo trips to places she’d never had an opportunity to visit -such as the Galagagos. But this unassuming woman wanted to lead a more purposeful life. She accepted a friend’s invitation to help organize a program for a university in Cambodia. “I’d never been to a third-world country,” she says, “ but I didn’t think I should refuse the invitation.” She was there for two months. “It was challenging,” she admits.
A new chapter doesn’t have to be that adventurous, which brings me to a personal heroine. My mother worked as a legal secretary until she was eighty, despite being handicapped by severe hearing loss. (For years she refused to wear hearing aids, because she thought they would make her look old.). Widowed and retired, she found that life in her Florida residential hotel was lonely. So she invited the other solitary women to a series of Sunday afternoon “concerts” in her room. At these popular meetings guests listened to opera recordings of her idols, mainly Pavorotti, and my hospitable mother offered cookies – and whiskey..
No one chooses to be widowed and loss is never easy. But we should revise what “the end” means. I confess that I saw my husband’s death as the end of anything good in my own life- unaware that I would go on to write books that help other widowed people.
“Action is the antidote for despair,” Joan Baez said. The choice varies because there’s no one size fits all. But the other side of grief is the opportunity to create a new chapter for ourselves.
Books: “Widow’s Walk” – available through iUniverse.com; “Turning Toward Tomorrow”-–xLibris.com; “Come and Go” – ∫ookBaby.com; “Ten Women of Valor” and “Role Playy” – Amazon and Amazon Kindle.