22 February 2013

The Merry Widow, Part 1

Last September, we were treated to a two-part guest blog post by Miriam Biskin on her years as a public school teacher. Miriam recently celebrated her 90-something birthday and I asked if she would prepare another guest post. She offered this delightful treatise on widows and widowhood, which, because of its length, I’ll split between today and next Tuesday.

As I watched the 1934 movie of Jeanette McDonald and Maurice Chevalier waltzing together across the screen in The Merry Widow, I was envious and a bit annoyed by the thought of how ancient they would be if they were still alive and how ancient I myself am. However, the lilting music of Franz Leh├ír transported me back through the years into my beloved’s arms--a delicious memory.

Sometime later, at a party, I watched some of my peers tapping their feet in time to the tunes of a three-piece orchestra, and a few who were even tempted to trip the light fantastic. If the ones on walkers had formed a line, they might have replicated that famed show-stopping chorus scene from The Producers. The moving tableau of those dancing white-haired ladies and balding gentlemen had a sheer bravado, reminiscent of Hawthorne’s short story, Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment, with its Fountain of Youth water.

Widows in History

Historically, widows are interesting. There was Ruth in the Bible whose “Whither thy goest, I will go” promise to her mother-in-law is an example of loving loyalty. The story of Bathsheba describes an adulterous female who seduced King David who then obligingly arranged for her widowhood. 

The Wife of Bath (Courtesy of Florida
Center for Instructional Technology
Memorable, of course, was Chaucer’s raunchy Wife of Bath whose multiple marriages made her an expert on men. Shakespeare never gives Caesar’s Calpurnia the chance to say , “I told you so,” while Hamlet’s mother could have served her husband’s funeral feast at her quickie wedding to Uncle Claudius. 

Shakespeare’s widowers are interesting, too, with King Lear fixated on his daughters and Othello lamenting that loving not wisely but too well (or was it vice-versa?).

In American history, Martha Washington was a wealthy widow when she married and then outlived George, as did Mary Todd Lincoln outlive Abraham. In more modern days, Eleanor, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cousin-wife, continued her daily newspaper column. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy found sanctuary with Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis, who probably would have looked taller standing on his money.

My Personal Widow History

My own mother was a young widow, actively being pursued by an overeager gentleman who had a great opinion of himself. She finally quelled his ardor by saying, “Mein mann in kaver is scheiner fin der,” which translates, “My husband in his tomb is more attractive than you.”

The author’s mother, early 1900s.
Nothing is funny about death, of course, but for years, my brother-in-law gave me many final instructions, particularly no limousines, to which my husband replied, “Okay, she can try UPS.”

One of my husband’s own comic reminders was to ask for a senior citizen’s discount. When I actually made the request of the tombstone seller, he laughed or perhaps it was a sneer. At a neighborhood card party, I mentioned that I was stone shopping and was immediately surrounded by several ladies. Were they on commission?

To be continued next Tuesday. Thanks for stopping by.

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