Widows. There are 11.8 million in the U. S., with 2,800 new widows joining the ranks every day. Lily, what’s the first thing you think of when you think of widows?
Whistler’s Mother. I’m not sure if she was a widow when the portrait was painted, but she definitely has “the look.”
She was, in fact, a widow at that time. Anna McNeill Whistler was born in 1804 and widowed at age 45 (1849 or so). The portrait was painted in 1871. How about you, 9? What’s the first thing you think of when you think of widows?
Miss Prissy, the Widder Hen in the Foghorn Leghorn cartoons! Oh, and Grandma Gretchen.
Good thing Miss Prissy’s son, Eggbert, is a child genius who foils Foghorn Leghorn’s plans to take advantage of her assets! Grandma Gretchen was much more self-sufficient. Widowed at 53 she lived on for nearly 40 more years, independently for most of them. The first thing I think of when I think of Grandma Gretchen’s widowhood is her bowling team:
I don’t know the average age of American widows in 1958 when Gretchen became one, but the last U. S. census pegs it at 59. That was my age when I became a widow.
Wait, we got married and now you’re a widow?
Yes (three times) and yes (once), 9. We’d been married over 12 years when Bruce died December 23, 2018.
I’m sorry for your loss.
Thank you, Lily.
The death of a spouse is one of the known risks of marriage. Another is divorce. From the internet: According to the American Psychological Association, approximately 40-50% of first marriages end in divorce. The divorce rate for second marriages is even higher, with approximately 60-67% of second marriages ending in divorce.
Wow, that’s a lot! I hope Mom and Dad don’t get divorced.
Rest easy, 9, they don’t.
Anyone who has gone through divorce can tell you it has its own emotional baggage, and there can be social consequences, too. Sometimes you lose connection with people you used to socialize with as a couple, intentionally or unintentionally, because you no longer fit the mold. Being widowed can be like that, too, plus people often think they will intrude on your grief. People tend to forget that the widow (or widower) is the one who survived. Which means we have more of life to move through, and, for the time being, are living it without a partner. As no two marriages are alike, no two widowhoods are alike.
Visual arts has Whistler’s Mother (officially titled “Arrangement in Black and Gray No. 1”). Animation has Miss Prissy. The Wide World of Sports has Grandma Gretchen. But when it comes to the literary arts I find widows as movers and shakers in fiction are pretty much absent.
I worked through my feelings about widowhood primarily by writing. Journaling, of course, and after a year or so I started thinking of ways to process the experience through non-fiction. I planned an essay format, dealing with all the day-to-day things I had to learn (my therapist told me learning how to re-string a weed eater is an early achievement for many widows!). Bruce handled most things that had to do with repairs and maintenance, and he also did a lot of the cooking. He enjoyed cooking a lot more than I did, and he ate a lot more, too! My imagined non-fiction project included a few recipes “for one” that I created as I re-learned how to feed myself.
When it comes to writing for the purpose of getting a book published, widows in non-fiction is definitely a market niche. Comps were easy to find- -memoirs, how-tos, you name it. But after messing around with my original idea I came back to the truth: what interests me about writing is fiction.
In fiction, widows as protagonists are conspicuously absent. Widows as secondary characters and side-kicks are scarce, too. All writing for publication, whether fiction or non-fiction, is market-driven. If an agent doesn’t think they can sell a manuscript to a publisher (even if they, personally love the manuscript) they will decline to represent it.
Interesting. 11.8 million widows sounds like a big audience..
I think so, too, Lily, but big, stodgy industries like publishing are deathly afraid of what trying something new will do to profits. Non-fiction about dealing with grief, administering an estate, even reentering the dating scene (not raising my hand!) sells very well. So why don’t publishers go for novels that show widows dealing with these topics, along with their own personal journey that ties it all together?
Widows. Rejected again because people can’t imagine where we fit in. But let’s remember: widows and widowers are the ones who survived. We live and breathe, eat and sleep, and, gosh, maybe we read?
The literary world- -agents, editors, publishers- -have made a huge push in the past decade or so to represent and promote stories from traditionally marginalized groups. This is an important and long-overdue shift, and there is a strong emphasis on providing large readerships with characters who “look like me.” I wonder if the fiction targeted for these groups- -racial minorities, sexual minorities, etc.- -includes compelling widows or widowers in the cast of characters?
If you want to see a story about a widow, why don’t you write one?
I have, 9, and that’s why this is on my mind. I’m gearing up to send out my contemporary women’s fiction with romantic/suspense elements to yet another round of agents in the hope of finding representation. Very likely it’s a strike against me that I’m over 50.
Don’t tell them, then.
I don’t, Lily, but I think any agent who’s been around a while is adept at reading between the lines of query letters.
Ignoring- -dare I say marginalizing?- -widows as lead characters in fiction is one thing. In life, I have yet to feel left out of anything I want to do because I’m a widow, or even because I’m 63.
Hush, Lily. But sometimes widowed friends of mine do feel excluded. I’ll say it again: we are the ones who survived.
Food for thought. I’m also curious to investigate why people want to read about characters who “look like them” (or, in this case, share a significant experience with them)?
In the meantime, here’s my favorite snack hack “for one”:
1 sheet graham cracker (2 squares)
2 squares thin good-quality chocolate (Lindt 78% cacao is my go-to)
Break the graham cracker sheet into 2 squares. Top each with a square of chocolate. Microwave as needed to melt the chocolate but not to a runny state if you don’t like it that way (maybe 20-30 seconds on high, but you know your microwave better than I do). NOTE: I suppose you could introduce marshmallows or marshmallow creme into this recipe, but I don’t care for the stuff so I left it out. Or maybe I marginalized it?
Enjoy with a glass of milk, mug of tea or a shot of brandy, and see you next week!
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