The Widow's War

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Yesterday I had an inspiring day at the Denver Botanic Gardens with my daughter and her husband and in-laws.  As we strolled toward the parking garage, drunk on the saturation of all things botanical, someone mentioned lunch.  Not to worry, I told myself.  I had already anticipated this and thought it through.

It was about the check, of course.  When I was married I wouldn't have given it a second thought.  The in-laws and my husband and I would split the check, treating the kids.  But now....geez.

Paying only for myself seemed a bit stingy to me, as that would likely leave the in-laws to pay for the kids.  Paying for everyone seemed a bit magnanimous.  Neither did I  want them to feel they had to treat the "poor widow."  So the check came and I took it and looked at Katie's mother-in-law and said, should we split it?  She looked relieved too.

Thus, the essence of a new widow's struggle.  Sally Gunning, in this story, helped me articulate this struggle so that I could make these strange and unfamiliar decisions with confidence.

Her story, of 18th century widow Lyddie, who lost her husband of 20 years to a whale boating accident has given me an honest and hopeful archetype of the widow's experience.  She crafted a story that mirrored for me some of my own conflicts in negotiating widowhood.  It also gave me much to be grateful for.

In 18th century America, it was assumed that a widow would move into the home of her eldest child, or the male heir since, legally, all of she and her husband's property now belonged to that heir.  Lyddie had just one daughter, so all of her property went to her son-in-law, on whom she became dependent for everything.

Gunning drew two traits in Lyddie, a character I grew to love and learn from.  They could, most simply be called strength and courage.  But these were much more nuanced. Self-reliance and emotional independence.

The detail of her circumstances that enraged me most was the sense of entitlement on the part of her son-in-law and other people who had business interests in her property.  As a 21st century woman, I escaped that. I have the financial independence and freedom that I always took for granted.  I no longer take it for granted.  I know many people fought hard and some gave their lives so that I could have this freedom.

But emotional independence?  Not so much.

That's why  Lyddie's story of emotional dependence and subsequent freedom is what most inspired me.

In the story, as you might expect, in rides the man on the white horse, a local attorney who had the knowledge and the means to make Lyddie's problems all go away, if she would just marry him.

Thank you Sally Gunning for creating a character in Lyddie who understood the price she would truly pay in order to live in the illusion of security.  It was clear to Lyddie, if not to everyone else, that marriage would not offer her any more independence than life with her daughter and son-in-law would offer.  Legally, her husband would own her property.

I kept thinking, Lyddie, just  marry the guy.  He's a decent guy!  He'll be good to you!  That's what we all say, right?  But, no, Lyddie discovered that she wanted to live life on her terms, regardless the cost.

Another aspect that I admired was Lyddie's fierce self-reliance.  She simply WOULD NOT accept anything from anyone that she had not worked for.  

I've always considered myself a pretty self-reliant person.  Now I realize that, in marriage, I had grown used the the give and take that living with a partner provides.  I was not self-reliant.  I got married when I was 23 years old, so I hadn't had many years in my life when I'd had to be.

When Roy died, I could feel this cloying neediness creeping in.  This terror that I couldn't handle life on my own.  Lyddie and I faced that head on. Yes we did.  And we both, one baby step at a time, learned about what self-reliance looked like for us.

It's always so fun when a plot line takes a twist that delights. In the end Lyddie ended up owning her home through a series of negotiations that she worked out.  And the 'knight on the white horse' attorney rented a room from her.

It's true, Lyddie didn't do this by herself.  While her community wasn't much support to her, there were a few critical people who understood what she was trying to do and lent a hand. 

That is God.  That is where I learned that my reliance has to be on me and God.  Like Lyddie, I have to believe in this world that I am worthy of provision and do not need to rely on others for my well-being.  And then, the others in my life, are a comfort and a joy.