There is a particular kind of made-for TV-movie that is popular these days that serves as an antidote to the troubles of the world. These films tend to be set in a picturesque small town that focuses on one quaint industry like giant pumpkins or patriotic flag bunting or Christmas ornaments. The heroine is a feisty woman — recently single — who ends up in the cute town for some reason. Perhaps it’s her hometown that she left years ago but now a family member is sick and she must return, or perhaps she works for an international conglomerate interested in buying a pumpkin patch, or perhaps her adorable antique truck broke down by the side of the road as she was bringing blankets to her best friend’s dog rescue. Inevitably, this woman meets cute with a handsome man who lives on the edge of town in a charming old inn or on a ranch. He’s often a widower, the most sympathetic of all possible male character types. A divorced man or confirmed bachelor is imbued with potential problems — messy divorce issues or commitment phobia — but a widower is a good man capable of great love, who is simply in need of healing. What could be more enticing?
Now you know and I know that there is no town filled with cheerful, telegenic people gathered around a freshly painted gazebo celebrating the saving of the patriotic bunting factory after the town’s wealthy recluse overhears the widower’s wee daughter reminiscing about how her dear departed mama loved to drape bunting every Fourth of July. And certainly, the crowd is not cheering as the widower realizes he loves the feisty outsider and they promise their lives to one another with a chaste kiss. We know life does not really work this way. And yet, when it comes to the widower part of the story, the rose-colored view remains believable. When I started dating my now-husband, a former-widower, my single girlfriends were filled with envy. As a widower, he’d clearly been able to make a romantic commitment and I would not have to deal with messy legal issues or an ex-wife. I’d just landed the unicorn of the dating world: the single man who knows how to have a relationship, yet has never ended one. Bring on the gazebo and cue up the band. This story will end with a wedding.
In many ways, I’ve hit the jackpot. My husband happens to be kind and calm, and is yin to my yang. He has a great job and a full head of hair. His boys are all adults now and are educated, employed, and polite. My husband did not date until he had fully grieved and moved on. I’ve since heard stories about women having to console their husbands while they cry about missing their wives. I’ve heard of men who remember to mourn the first wife’s birthday, death day, and anniversary, yet forget to celebrate the birthday of the new wife. I’ve heard of men who keep veritable shrines in their homes. I’ve also heard of men who were on bad terms with their wives when they died, leaving a toxic blanket of guilt. You certainly never see that in the movies. So, yes, I’m in unicorn territory here with my husband who does none of the above. And if we lived on an island, or on TV, things would be just dandy.
Have you ever noticed that in all of those romantic, made-for-TV movies, the men tend to live in isolation? They’re introverted firefighters or ranch hands, surrounded by one or two high-fiving buddies. They only really come into town on occasion for supplies. Rarely do they live in a gossipy Stepford-like community and there’s a reason for this: it ruins the heartwarming mood when the protagonist is called “the other woman” at the local swimming pool or accosted at a party by someone wearing the dead wife’s clothes.
I might have been warned that something was afoot when my husband and I first met and went as friends to a local fundraiser. I was new to town and he’d lived there, with his former wife, for almost two decades. He did the neighborly thing and asked if I wanted to go with him. At the time, I had zero interest in dating. So, I was shocked when I was hip checked at the bar by an angry looking middle-aged woman who told me to “watch myself” like someone who has viewed too much HBO. The small group of women with crossed arms and pursed lips might have tipped me off to the fact that some of the locals were not overly welcoming of a potential union between us. I’ve since learned that there was a small contingent who’d thought my husband would be well suited for someone else: a long-time resident who was on her own in the land of suburban coupledom. My arrival at this event, appearing to be his date, messed with the headcount on the ark. Commence the smiting.
My personal favorite wife of widower moment was when I was accosted at a party by someone wearing my husband’s dead wife’s jacket. A woman I’d never met came up to me, without introduction, and announced that she was wearing my then boyfriend’s dead wife’s jacket. My now husband stood there, looking stunned. He’d given away some of his former wife’s clothes to her friends, thinking they might like something to remember her. He never contemplated that his kind act might be weaponized. A girlfriend of mine, when I told her the story, said I should have met the outrageous “I’m wearing her jacket” statement with an equally outrageous “I’m wearing her underwear” response. We had a good laugh over that one even though I knew I could never say it. When death is involved, one simply can’t respond with a caustic quip and people seem to count on that.
I’ve had women ask me if my husband’s dead wife’s ghost appears to me (no), I’ve been asked if I think she’s a butterfly (probably not), I’ve been asked if supernatural things have occurred (perhaps, and I paid a medium to deal with it as a precaution.) I’ve been called “the other woman” at my children’s swimming lessons, making me sound like some sort of pulp-fiction mistress (apparently, our town ranked highly in the Ashley Madison hack, so perhaps “other women” were on the brain.) I’ve been told that I will never live up to his former wife. I’m not sure why people feel compelled to say these things, but other wives of widowers have shared similar experiences.
I’ve written and unwritten this piece many times, as this topic is never without controversy. I’ve shared a lot of tricky personal stuff over the years: post-partum depression, my malfunctioning lady parts, post-divorce dating violence, my struggle with anxiety, and eye surgery fails. But every time I touch on the subject of widowers remarrying, the internet freaks out. People chime in to explain away the bad behaviour, saying “they are still grieving” and “it’s not their fault that they miss her.” It’s the one topic that has invited personal criticism. I have yet to find a stage of grief that gives you carte blanche to act this way, yet there it is. The funny thing is that the people who were closest to my husband’s family were happy for him, and, by extension, for us. As a friend of mine suggested, the people closest to grief have no choice but to walk forward. It’s those on the periphery who remain stuck.
I really should be over it by now, but every once in a while I get an email related to an old blog post with a new wife of a widower seeking advice. There continue to be low-key wives of widowers chat boards where women share stories similar to what I’ve experienced. The reality is, when I moved to the town I live in, I needed a lot of support and the shunning I endured had a deep cost for me and my family. It put stress on my husband and robbed him of the joy he so richly deserved. It also put strain on our marriage.
I still don’t know why it’s any of anyone’s business, but I do have the start of a theory. My husband’s wife died in her forties: an age where, in wealthy suburbia, one can be lulled into feeling like one is in control. When she died, the men were still ascending in their careers, the women were enjoying being at home playing tennis and having lunch, everyone was healthy, and all of the children’s futures looked shiny. And since the kids were still involved in sports and school activities, there was lots of opportunity for socialization. Since she’s been gone, some of those careers have stalled, many of the women seem less happy being at home now that the kids have grown, and people realize that their friendships are fleeting now that kids’ activities no longer dictate their social lives. And people have started to get sick. Her death highlighted people’s mortality. It highlighted that life is not always an upward progression all the way into one’s eighties, even in the leafiest and most planned of communities. It also reminded people that life moves on and the world keeps turning. When we go, life does not grind to a halt. My husband and I are walking, talking reminders of all of these things. Perhaps that’s why people feel compelled to rush up to us in the supermarket and talk about the good old days, pretending I don’t exist.
So many people think that marrying a widower is simple since there is not an ex-wife in the picture. And I’m sure it is simpler than being involved with someone in a high conflict divorce. But even if it’s simpler, it’s not for the faint of heart. It involves loving someone in the shadow of a ghost who is kept alive by people with a vested interest in staying in the past. When people ask me if I’d do it again, I say absolutely. But I also say that we’d move.
Warm-hearted TV movies are obviously meant for escapism and overlook a lot of realities. Nobody over the age of five is that cheerful when it snows and investment bankers are really not all that interested in someone’s pumpkin farm. I will always enjoy a good, uncomplicated love story, but now that I’m the wife of a widower, when the good-natured veterinarian who has just lost his wife meets the starry-eyed heroine, I roll my eyes just a little more than I did before.