I remove GG’s paintings from the walls. The sad, serious eyes of her portraits will no longer stare at me, saying nothing. The rental I am moving into is one-fourth the size of the churchhouse. I will no longer have vast space. But I don’t want big anymore. I realize it was Peter who desired the grand hall and large kitchen for music and entertaining. I want small and simple and cozy. I meet with my writing professor to discuss my master’s thesis and suggest to her that I could write the story of my children’s dead father. I tell her a little bit about Peter, the bon vivant, who dies suddenly and disappears, his music silenced. Or, I say, I could write the stories of my grandmothers, my widowed kin, whose widowhood I have only discovered from my own widow’s hood. I fear the faces of GG will disappear, I say, that their stories will never be told. I tell her about GG’s paintings, the hankies, the handbags. What about your own story, she asks. It’s too personal, I say, wrapping my cloak around me.
I begin writing my grandmothers’ stories and the text confronts me. First you honor the ghost father, it says, now the dead mother. What about you, the woman in between, who lives and breathes, providing love and food for your children, doing this “everything” you fear so much? Pull those old hankerchiefs from your hip-hugging pockets, the text orders. You have a story that is not Peter’s and not your grandmothers’. You are a widow in a new century. First, learn to embroider them, and then start packing your own damn hankies, it says.
I start to write myself into and apart from my lineage. GG is a modern widow, Mama Til, a pioneering widow and I, the first postmodern widow in my family of women. I live in a country, in a time, where women run corporations, same-sex couples adopt children, domestic partners are entitled to working benefits and single mothers keep rediscovering what they have always known: it has always been the women and children together at the hearth, while the warriors and hunters went off to war and hunt.
One day, at my keyboard—my postmodern hearth—the fingers of my left hand start a scuffle over territory and the spelling of words. Because my middle finger is faster, louder and more experienced than my delicate ring finger, middle finger finds the “e” before ring finger reaches the “w” and the “w” falls off the end of widow into the land of “q” and “a,” where it will, no doubt, make question words. I see the aftermath of the battle on my screen and suddenly, widoe has softened, transformed, is smiling even, a Mona Lisa kind of smile.
Widoe. I smile. Why not? A doe, stag-less, with freckled fawns at my side. Sometimes, more often than I admit, I am frightened by the headlights of my life, afraid I won’t be able to pay my bills, that my debt will grow with the hole in my belly and that I’ll never fill it. I fear I’m not only scaring but also scarring my boys with the anger that comes bursting out of me. Anger I thought I had healed and am always surprised by. I’m scared, I’m surprised, sometimes squelched, but my squinty blue eyes are nothing like the dark, round eyes of a doe.
I call my thesis A Postmodern Widoe. Rather than deny my widow’s hood, I cut my cloak from a cloth that belongs to all widows, tailoring it to me. 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 tell my professor when she asks why, that the “e” is the proper way to make the o long and widoe feminine. Spare me the grammar lesson, she says. Okay then, widow is written in an archaic language that doesn’t define me, I say. The “e” loosens the patriarchal bindings of the word with its origins of being his property. I know I’m privileged to live in a progressively fertile valley where women, at least overtly, are not regarded as property. The hole in my belly is obesity alongside the widow of India who is cast out to the streets to beg with her children and who is denied her property, her children’s inheritance, which has been stolen by her husband’s family.
My widoe is somewhere in between mammal and woman, I say to my professor. 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. But I don’t have to live the Haitian widoe’s day-to-day hunger and poverty.
I begin to realize Peter’s death was his last gift to me. When the curtains closed on his life, they slowly opened again, and there, on the stage we had once occupied, at the altar I hadn’t seen, was a story of my own. I’m swimming like a mermaid, in deeper, bluer waters than I ever imagined exploring. The thin ice where I sometimes skate is ever fragile, but it also sparkles in the sun. Red raspberries, tart apples and bitter greens grow among the boys and beans in the garden. My contained braids jump joyously around my face in a Congolese rhythm, knowing they will be freed again at night, as I lay my head upon my soft pillow. There are heated moments when the boys and I are all going at each other like wildcats, and quiet moments where Zavi, the budding pre-teen, shows me how to embroider a cross-stitch, and lucky Pierre, a happy boy with freckles and a toothless grin, teaches me the slip-knot. I cherish the tiny moments where I get a taste of the sweet marrow in between, knowing that death will swoop in at the tiny moment it is supposed to, and I will have no choice, but to disappear.
We have released the ghost father and phantom husband to the skies, a good place for mythology and dreams. Our home has become mother-centered. We are a mama, four boys—two so grown now they’re men, two reaching up like the summer beans on our backyard poles. A cherished daughter-in-law has joined the family table; soon there will be babies; our bellies are full. I wear the low-cut cords, high heels, working boots, flip-flops, thongs, skirts and aprons too. From my little, rented home in a little town west of the churchhouse, I can hear church bells ring everyday at noon and again at suppertime. The churchhouse I moved from lacked the melodic and hopeful resonance of bells in its belfry.
The morning glory grows wild in my garden, there to greet the sun as it peeks out from the east for another day. I know the high beams will surprise me from around the corner. They shine to dare me as I walk my walk. They beam to dart a crucible across the road, to see whether I’m paying attention. They shine to show me just how bright light can be. I imagine a love will come around the corner someday, breathing warm, living air on my neck. But I will know it’s not his love or his living air that makes me, a widoe, complete.