I started wearing black in my teens and I have grown through the black of many shades and stages. Black dresses with carefree frills, black slacks for sassy, practical black for warm gloves and hats, the black I wore was playful and nonchalant, naive to the darker fringes found in wardrobes after death swoops in and kills nonchalance.
I liked wearing black. Satin black dresses, tied at my back, ebony curls and polished grey pearls; his charcoaled hair against my white breast. Black was an accent, not a focus. I asked him to wear it, and then wrapped myself around him like a sash circles a neck. Twirling around the smoky clubs, holding onto the black-and-blue of his eyes, we danced the midnight streets and the wooden floors of our churchhouse, under the moons of a blackened sky.
Black changed when he died. That night, I discovered the black of a widow. A shiny black; sharp and crisp. For Mama Til, my great grandmama, a widow’s black was dull, highly buttoned and severely laced. At the turn of the century, when Til stepped out of her launder woman’s home, she wore a widow’s costume. It was observed and noted that she was in her mourning period, and she was sheltered from the bite of the invisible widow’s black that I wear, perhaps?
Newly widowed, I yearned for an intricately woven, black-lace veil to drape over my tear-streaked face. I wanted the world to know that I was mourning my beloved. I wanted motorists to slow down when I crossed the busy street. I didn’t want for them to mistaken me as a goth and be suspicious of me. I wanted to wear a sign on my back that said, “be gentle with me; I am learning to walk with a limb missing.” But my widow’s black was quiet. Because mourning clothes aren’t worn in my time or culture, I wore naked clothes of grieving. Without a costume, I was blurred in a land of out-dated words and invisible wardrobes.
I didn’t wail in public. I didn’t throw myself into the unforgiving ocean or the expectant funeral pyre. I pinched my face brave as I feared falling apart. Afraid that if I crumbled, so did my children, my family, the peaked roof above our heads. I won’t crumble, I repeated, biting my lip till it bled. But no one saw the blood either. In my culture, the images of death are tucked away, until one day death bleeds in front of us. And then we don’t have enough towels in our closet, to sop it all up.
The black of my once-preferred wardrobe, paled as I tried on my new black. I didn’t know what to wear to describe my grief. A black armband to mourn revolutionary style, elevating my love to martyr? A hooded cape with a widow’s peak at my forehead? I recoiled at the sight of black. I heard widow and I cringed, “Don’t call me that. It isn’t true. It isn’t my story. It’s Jacqueline Kennedy’s, Yoko Ono’s, Katie Couric’s. Go away. Be an interrupted nightmare. Be someone else’s costume and title.”
The man I loved did not die fighting for the illusion of freedom. He was not a sacrificial lamb, a statesman or a rock star. He did not die in a factory accident, a car accident, or from an environmental disease. I didn’t watch him suffer and dwindle away, and yet, I live in the shadow of crumbling towers, where daddies and fathers and lovers disappear. Where I became widow and single-mother in the same swoop.
Trying to fit into my pre-dated corset, I looked up “widow” in the dictionary. From dowager, it said, a legal term. A woman who could own property because her husband had died. I looked for a widow in literature that I could relate to. There had to be stories of widows walking over boggy heaths, weren’t there? Civil War widows tending to the farm, hungry babies at their skirts. Widows of the Depression waiting in a bread line, cold children at their skirts. Widows of WWII in factories, boosting the value of America, children working at their skirts. Widows of Vietnam, staying out of fire’s way, horrified families hiding at their skirts.
Where I live, women run corporations, same-sex couples adopt children, domestic partners are entitled to working benefits and single mothers keep rediscovering that it has always been a village of women and children, around the hearth, while the men disappeared in the hunt, or war. Maybe, I realized one day, it’s not how I dress myself, but how I write myself. I can wear my name and write widow in a way that becomes me. My widoe can evolve from dowager, by dropping the w and adding an e. I can write myself as widoe and create a new way of looking at myself, through my own lyrical fingertips.
My widoe wears an e, the way another widow wears high-necked black, another wears a white mourning veil, another, a heavy shroud, or a severe peak. I told my professor that the e is the proper way to make the o long and widow feminine. Spare me the grammar lesson, she says. Okay then, widow is written in an archaic language that doesn’t define me. The e loosens the patriarchal bindings of widow, with origins of being his property. I know I’m privileged to live in a fertile valley where women, at least overtly, are not regarded as property. The nagging hole in my belly is obesity alongside the widow of India who has been cast out to the streets to beg with her children. The widow who has been denied her home, her children’s, inheritance, which had been stolen by her husband’s family.
“Widoe” is somewhere in-between mammal and woman, I said to my professor, as I explained my thesis title. Birth unites women in a family of mothers welcoming life into hopeful arms. Death unites women in a family of widoes releasing life from helpless arms. My widoe has the freedom to walk to a Haitian dance class, down the street from my home, thirsting for rejuvenation, from the live drumming, the sweat, and the colorful skirts. I don’t live the Haitian widoe’s day-to-day hunger and poverty. But, in many ways, I live her pain, her dance of raising children on a dime. Rather than deny my widow’s hood, I cut my cloak from a cloth that belongs to all widows, tailoring it to me, grateful for the choice I have to be able to wear what I want.