I took a seat in the waiting area, pulled out the paperback I had in my tote, intent on getting the last two chapters of Out Stealing Horses read before my classic reading group met that night.
Ten minutes into my attempted reading concentration, the muted conversation going on between Mr. Rodger and his client intensifies enough to be disturbing. I hear the rising agitation in the woman’s quivering voice and glance at her to see that she is crying. It’s an eavesdropping moment that arrests my attention though I hold my book up closer to my face and pretend I am still reading. My eyes remain on the elderly lady who has the beaten look of a frail sapling that’s just been whipped by a strong wind and left naked and vulnerable with its leaves tattered and torn from its branches. I note that her shriveled body and demeanor are stooped as she steps down out of the styling chair. Her newly styled champagne-tinted hair is the only glowing feature framing her sallow, teary-eyed wrinkled face. As she stands, she pivots around to face the attentive eyes of Mr. Rodger, apparently wanting to make one last point before she leaves.
“You keep tellin’ me to embrace my unintended singlehood,” she says. “Well, I’m tellin’ you, it’s not that easy. Just the thought of the idea, the word, what it means— putting my arms around someone I love”—she stops, swallows, chokes up a sob—“I do-on’t have that someone anymore and I don’t know how to put my arms around myself. . .to embrace myself? I don’t know how a person even does that!” she says as she shuffles toward the check-out desk.
“But you can learn; you have to,” Mr. Rodger says as he takes her by the elbow and leads her to the desk. “Clarence has passed, Joan; it’s time.”
“I know, I know,” she says fumbling around in her purse for her credit card. “But it’s so hard to have to pull the load alone when you’ve been half of a matched team pulling together for fifty-five years.”
A few minutes later, the door chime tweets its departing cheery note as she leaves, oblivious to the sound and its intent. “A brass band couldn’t cheer that woman up today,” I say as I move to the shampoo room.
“I know. She’s an old family friend and I’m worried about her. I wish she’d talk to somebody like you. . .somebody who’s got a real successful transition story to tell.”
“Well, it sure sounds like she’s veered into that infamous widows wailing wall and she’s so busy banging her head against it, she can’t look over it to see the fork in the road up ahead.”
“That’s just it,” he says. “Not only can she not see over it, she can’t find the path that will take her over it.”
By the time he finished lathering my hair and vigorously rubbing and massaging my scalp
with his fingertips till it tingled, then conditioning and rinsing it with the pressure spray, the memory of my own experience with widowhood and transitioning back to the single life had flooded into my mind.
My husband had been dead about a year when the world seemed to come crashing down upon me one day in May of 2008. My five year old Chevy truck had broken down and I was staring at a repair bill over seventeen hundred dollars. My husband always did all the repairs on our vehicles. He was a skilled mechanic and I hadn’t realized how much money he’d saved us over the years. Registering and maintaining two vehicles was expensive and I was in a quandary as to whether or not I should get rid of the truck. My small car was good on gas but the truck with its four-wheel drive was safer for Michigan winter driving. What to do?
As if my maintenance problems were not enough to cause me sleepless nights, there was the ongoing tension between my three kids and me. They wanted me to spend more time with them and they couldn’t understand why I wasn’t interested in living the rest of my life as an adjunct Grandma, flying along as the last knot on the tail of their kite.
And then even the weather that May had turned ugly and I had trees down on my property and I’d been without electric power going on the third day. My freezer full of food was defrosting and that was a loss I didn’t need on top of the expense with the truck. If only my husband were alive, I thought, he’d fix the truck, and he’d hook up his welder/generator for power and we’d get through this together. But he wasn’t alive and I went to bed yet another night crying myself to sleep.
On the third night without electricity, unable to fall asleep, about three in the morning, I got up, lit the rose-scented candle on my nightstand and carried it to the kitchen table, where I’d
been making a list that afternoon of what I was going to have to replace as soon as the power
came back on.
It was very dark, of course, and deadly quiet as I sat staring into the slowly rippling concentric circles of candlelight, not knowing why I’d come to sit at my kitchen table in the dark. The candle’s sweet, fresh smell of newly cut roses was soothing and its gentle yellow flicker, like an eyelid, steady and constant, seemed to be blinking at me, beckoning me. I felt a strange compulsion to reach out; so I picked up the pencil resting on the sheet of notebook paper I’d used to make my list and in that dim blinking light, I slowly began to draw a flowering rosebush, superimposing it right over my list.
It was as if someone else had ahold of that pencil—as if my hand were not my own—as if it were detached from me. I peered at the pencil tip as it drew three big roses fully opened, with layer upon layer of soft, ruffled petals. Then mentally re-connecting to the movement of the pencil, I stopped the careful, delicate sketching, and brusquely printed a name on each of the blooming flowers. One I labeled Healthy, another, Fortunate and a third, Energetic. And suddenly I realized what I was drawing.
The sketch was a crude illustration of the roses I was smelling—the roses I already had in my life. I didn’t have a bed of roses to lie on, but I had at least a small bouquet. And the three blossoms I’d drawn were symbols of my good health, my financial security and my zest for life.
But there was more to come, I knew, so I began to expand my picture; I drew the branches and the buds on my rosebush. Some buds I drew resembled flowers on the verge of opening; others were still tightly closed and I gave each of them names, too.
One bud, the one I drew nearest to the three in full bloom and on the same branch, was close
to bursting open. I called that one Freedom. Then I surrounded it with its perpetual
offspring—new branches sprouting little buds. Freedom’s firstborn bud, I marked Personal
Responsibility. Then I drew its two siblings—those still waiting, promising to become future flowers. I named them, Self-Reliance and Self-Restraint. I sketched the branch they were all attached to as a thick, sturdy, upright cane on my bush with several, piercing thorns that would surely accompany the birth of the new flowers.
Then, to complete my picture, I named each thorn—those prickly exploiters that could threaten growth or limit the pleasure I looked forward to now that I realized I already held a bouquet of roses. As if to accent their threat, I pressed down harder on the pencil as I wrote each thorn’s name: Duty, Obligation, Manipulation and Co-Dependence, breaking the lead just as I finished writing the last name. It was the signal that my philosophical trek into my emotional state was over and reality and fatigue moved back in. I put my broken pencil down, picked up the candle and carried it into my bedroom where I snuffed it out, and climbed back into bed, where I fell into a deep, rose-scented sleep.
I’d never drawn a thing before—certainly not in a dark house by the light of a single scented candle—and reflecting on it afterward, I felt as if I’d somehow drifted outside myself—as if I’d been hypnotized by the golden yellow shaft of fluttering candle flame. The scene came back to me for days and weeks after—the floating shadows cast on the kitchen wall, the palpitating concentric circles of the dim light that rippled over the round oak kitchen table and drifted across the white wall cabinets, immersing me and every object touched by that light in some sort of surreal presence.
The next day I woke up to the sudden whirr of my air-conditioning fan as my electricity kicked back on. It was a reminder that I was still in the real world and though I’d gone on some kind of intense subconscious trip deep within myself in the dark of the early morning hours, I’d
returned. But it was a different me that greeted the daylight. Some kind of light had literally
switched on inside me and I felt its power circuiting through me.
About noon, as I studied my drawing again, its message etched itself in my brain. It told me I already possessed the antidote to my own discontent. I held more roses than thorns in my hands—had more assets than liabilities in my life. It was time for me to come out of hibernation: to step forward, claim the blessings I’d been given and move into the future with confidence.
Though I had some lingering doubts about the ease of returning to the single life at age sixty-seven, I left my house that afternoon ignited with a fresh verve for life. Mentally, I tallied up my blessings. I was free to nurture and cultivate every budding desire I’d ever had and probably nipped in the earlier phases of my life. Whatever I’d set aside in dreams and hopes such as personal time to write, to travel, garden, sew, volunteer, read, pursue a frivolous or serious hobby—no hindrance or barricade appeared to hold me back now.
I had a second chance to nurture my individual personhood but I wasn’t sure I knew how to go about it. Those of us raised in the self-sacrificial Christian tradition were taught to suppress individual desires during the coupled years when the needs of the conjoined entity, the couple, are paramount. But I was another entity now—a widowed, newly single-again woman, uncoupled and free to make new choices. All I had to do was figure out how to re-enter the blazing sunlight of unrestricted freedom my regained singlehood offered without getting burnt.
As I re-evaluated my options from my new perspective as a woman in late-life singlehood, I decided that the quickest and safest way to re-enter that narrow gate into a happy Singledom was to follow the joiner road leading to any group whose activities, interests and philosophy matched my own. I adopted a pro-active attitude knowing I had to take responsibility for myself—that no one was coming to take me by the hand. I began by joining groups open to everyone,
investigating how the people in each one treated each other and interacted with each other,
mindful of my first requirement that people be accepted and valued as individuals.
What I found confirmed that I’d made a wise choice in gravitating toward groups. It became clear to me that singles congregated in groups precisely because groups are made up of singles! Within the dynamics of the group, all persons are considered onesies; even declared twosomes are treated as singles in group interactions. Consider group discussions, for example. Opinions, arguments and counterpoints are expressed by individual voices, not by conjoined units. Groups seem to operate under an invisible banner posted at every entrance that reads: All Individuals Welcome. If coupled, please unhitch before entering.
For me, groups promoting my interests are the gatekeepers guarding the entrance to a happy life in Second Singlehood. Soon after my “awakening”that dark Spring night five years ago, one by one, I found and joined several invigorating groups. Each one gave my stalled individuality a booster shot and each has taught me to be a more independent thinker in charge of my own future.
About The Author: Diane Marty is a retired English teacher who taught English and Expository Writing in high schools in California, Wyoming and Michigan. She has attended several writing conferences in her quest to hone her Creative Writing skills. Her essay, Doomsday, was published in the 2008-09 Bear River Review and her short story, On Resurrecting Sleeping Dogs, was also published in the 2010 edition of The Bear River Review. Diane is a widowed grandmother to seven grandchildren and she lives in Dowagiac, Michigan.