Marrying a Widow

Or, my spectral predecessor



Those who marry a widow may find themselves competing with a ghost. Such has been my experience. It started with a joke. Years ago, after a series of amorous misfires, I said to my friend Sally, half in jest, “The divorcees are bitter, and the women who have never married are bitter. What I really need to find is a widow, who loved her husband and therefore may retain some fondness for men.”

Sally said: “I do know a widow. She’s pretty, intelligent, artistic, and she’s still fairly young.” Sally knew I wanted to have children.

She introduced me to Cheryl, who had been married to a painter named Edward. Cheryl had met Edward when she was still in art school, and he was one of the teachers.

In photographs, he appears as a tall, skinny, broad-shouldered guy with a mop of curly hair: I can see the attraction. They went out for a number of years, and both moved to New York, where they lived together at the edge of poverty in a loft in Williamsburg. Though Edward was a gifted artist, he wasn’t selling much, and so he supported himself as an assistant to more successful artists and as a skilled carpenter. He also did what artists were supposed to do in those days, which was to smoke and drink a lot. That, plus the harmful chemicals that painters inhaled then, may have led to his contracting cancer. Cheryl took him for medical treatments, but it was already too late. She decided they should get married, to demonstrate their love and perhaps enact superstitiously a defiant faith that he could be cured. Her mother was opposed to her marrying Edward, rather understandably, because he was a penniless artist and dying; but Cheryl ignored her, being fully in the throes of a heroic romantic gesture. They were married only a couple of months when he passed away, at age 41.

A widow still in her 20s, she struggled to sort out his artistic estate, managed to get him an exhibition, and put the rest in storage. Several years passed under a cloud of grief. She had just begun to get back in the dating game when I met her. She was, as promised, very attractive, sensitive, with good moral values, but somber and pessimistic. Slowly I convinced her that we could have a future together. I sensed she was not passionately in love with me, as she had been with Edward, but that was all right: I’m uncomfortable as an object of adoration. Her friends counseled her that she should grab the chance, and so she did, as much to placate them as to elect me, I suspect.

It took her some getting used to, living with a character like me. I was so unlike Edward: because they were both visual artists, they could understand each other often on a nonverbal level, and they shared the same interest in the art world and the same austere, bohemian lifestyle, whereas I always insisted on putting everything in words, and was much more drawn by this time to bourgeois comfort. There was also the fact that Edward was physically quite strong and handy, able to fix things, as I am not. Simply put, he was manlier than I, and when Cheryl and I quarreled, I suspected that she wished she were still with her first love.

I took to referring to him banteringly as her “real husband.” I played up this idea of my being merely an ersatz version, partly to extract a denial from her that this was the case, and partly to diffuse my own jealousy by exaggerating it. There is a funny riff in the Jean Renoir film La Chienne, where the harridan of a wife keeps comparing her present husband disdainfully to her sainted late husband, whose portrait she keeps above the mantel; three-quarters through the movie, we learn that the first husband hadn’t died but had simply run away. Cheryl was disinclined to make comparisons between us, but I sometimes got her to talk about Edward, their trips to Mexico, his refusal to have children. It came out that life with Edward was not all roses. He too had a somber streak, and when he got angry, he would refuse to speak for days. I may have many faults as a husband, but my pouts rarely last beyond two or three hours. And Cheryl, for her part, would no longer put up with such treatment. If I start to sulk, she will immediately scoff, “Oh, so now you’re giving us the silent treatment? Don’t be such a baby!”

I have also, I like to think, taught her to laugh. When we first got together, she was, as mentioned, morose, pessimistic. Over the years, she has developed into someone frequently cracking jokes, laughing at herself and others and inclined to merriment.

Every year, as widows do, she’d get a little sad around the season of her first husband’s death. But the birth of our child made her transfer the bulk of those emotions to Lily, and Edward became more of an afterthought. After 26 years of marriage, I recognize that she loves me as much as she ever did Edward, though in a different way, and is happy or at least content to be my wife. If anything, I am the one who has kept the romance of Edward alive in my head, as a tantalizing irritant. He, the promising artist who died young, and I, the schlemiel who has to shovel out several hundred dollars a month to the storage company to house his artworks. “Why can’t we just ship it off to his relatives in Colorado?” I would ask. She’d reply: “Because they don’t value art and never understood his becoming an artist. They’d probably toss it all in the garbage.”

Recently, Cheryl arranged for two gallery shows of her late husband’s work in Chicago. The first sold fairly well, the second not at all. I am resigned to never recouping the money I’ve spent on Edward’s storage—or should I say “storing Edward,” my spectral predecessor. At least my phantom doppelganger is out of the house. We do have some of his paintings hung on our walls, and it doesn’t bother me. I think I would actually miss them if they were someday taken down.

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Phillip Lopate is director of Columbia University's nonfiction program, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, and author of Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and To Show and to Tell, among other books.


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