A Widow’s Story
After 48 years of happy marriage, Joyce Carol Oates experiences widowhood.
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As Mrs. Smith, she tries to be quiet and no trouble to others and to supply all the right answers. “The Widow has entered the stage of primitive thinking in which she imagines that some small, trivial gesture of hers might have meaning in relationship to her husband’s death. As if being ‘good’ – ‘responsible’ – she might undo her personal catastrophe,” she writes in one of the narrative paragraphs that end many of the chapters. She also offers practical hints: “Advice to the widow: MAKE DUPLICATE COPIES OF THE DEATH CERTIFICATE. MANY!”Skip to next paragraph
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Her professional self she dubs “JCO,” a construct whom she is determined to impersonate “as flawlessly” as a replicant from “Blade Runner.” Despite her grief and insomnia, “JCO” will carry on with her tasks as a writer and professor at Princeton University without her students and readers seeing her pain. In her memoir, she lets herself howl. As for the novels everyone still expects her to whip out every three months like clockwork, she writes she could no more start a new one than she could hike across Antarctica.
She also fights a fascination with suicide, which she describes as a basilisk “with beady dead gem-like eyes.”
Oates includes her own e-mails and excerpts from the letters sent her at this time, and details the many kindnesses from her friends. (These include writers such as Richard Ford; Edmund White; and Gail Godwin, another widow who advised her, “Suffer, Joyce. Ray was worth it.”) And she includes glimpses of her and Smith’s life together in Wisconsin, Michigan, and, briefly, Texas. (“At least we’re not in Beaumont,” was the family catchphrase for decades after one school year there.)
Eventually, she brings herself to plant flowers in Smith’s garden, choosing perennials “guaranteed to survive,” and to read Smith’s unfinished novel, “Black Mass.” In it, she learned the reason for her husband’s schism from his father and the Roman Catholic church, which he had kept from her their entire life together.
“A Widow’s Story” ends on a hopeful note. While cleaning up the trash bins raccoons have strewn across her driveway, Oates finds a pair of missing earrings. “If I have lost the meaning of my life, and the love of my life, I might still find small treasured things amid the spilled and pilfered trash.”
And her last chapter, “The Widow’s Handbook,” hints that she may have slain her basilisk. “Of the widow’s countless death-duties there is really just one that matters: on the first anniversary of her husband’s death the widow should think I kept myself alive.”
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews books for the Monitor.