I am a 69-year-old widow. In 1939, when I was fourteen, my family and I landed in New York, fleeing from the threat of Jewish annihilation and impending European war. My family had lived in Lithuania, then Germany, then Switzerland.
Five years after arriving in the U.S. (and three days after graduating from college), I married the man who would share the next 46 years with me. We had a rich life, raising three children, working, involving ourselves in community life.
But everything changed when my husband Ben died. Now I live alone, and I am still getting used to it.
Sometimes, now that three years have passed, I actually forget that I am alone, experiencing it instead as solitude. But at other times I wake up during the night and reach for Ben. In the early months of widowhood this was painful; now it feels almost like a comforting memory.
I even have moments of happiness now—moments that are free of missing him. I have almost gotten used to eating alone, traveling alone. I do miss being able to say “good morning,” and “good night.” I miss touching. I miss the old give and take. I miss laughing and complaining.
The last ten years of Ben’s life had been so overshadowed by ill health and a constant fear of imminent crisis or death that at first, when he died, I felt relief: No more worrying. No more constant considering of another person’s needs, preferences, opinions. For so long, my life had been balanced unevenly between Ben’s medical needs, our intimacy, and my independent life, including my professional work.
In the first months of my widowhood, my sense of “self in the world swung erratically and unpredictably. I felt numb, then weepy, then desperate to keep reviewing his last illness, to keep talking about him, over and over, to whomever would listen. I had no idea how few people would be willing to listen, not once, but over and over and over.
Here I was again, just like that green immigrant girl, once more spoiling people’s good time with my insistent presence. I reminded people of tragedy, of mortality, of experiences they could not or did not want to bring to consciousness.
As I have grieved and struggled with feelings of loss and displacement, and as my social life has shifted from a world of couples (both straight and gay) to a world of women widows, divorcees, and single by choice, my memories of immigrant days, for so many years latent, persistently intrude into dreams and waking thoughts.
My new widowhood re-opens long-gone memories of previous losses and challenges.
My family moved and wandered constantly when I was young, searching for relative safety during the pre-war Hitler years. During those early uprootings from one country after another, it was simply expected that I would absorb any new language, and I did; and that I would continue to do well in school no matter what, and I did. That I would adapt to whatever came my way, and I did.
When I was a child, our family never spoke of our pervasive insecurities and non-belonging, our separations, our endless packing and unpacking, the pain of leaving beloved friends and neighborhoods, of changing languages over and over again. We never spoke about the struggles—because we felt so very lucky and privileged to be alive at all.
And though I have made America my home for over fifty years, loving its varied landscapes, walking its beaches and wooded paths, I am suddenly a foreigner again, uncertain of the subtleties of this new country of widowhood. Long repressed and never validated feelings emerge with unexpected urgency, shouting at me: ‘Other!’ ‘Alien!’ ‘Ignored!’ ‘Left out!’ These feelings reverberate with memories of my childhood as a wandering Jew without a country, unentitled even to call my difficulty difficulty.
In my new widowhood, this all came back to me. How can I presume to feel pain among those who have suffered so much more? How can I indulge my grief in the comfort of my beautiful home, when so many old women barely survive in poverty and illness?
Still, the skills that I acquired as a wandering child serve me well now. Once again, this time as an older woman, a widow, still a Jew, I am not always welcome, my wisdom is not always appreciated, my pain is often overlooked. I am not always certain of my “place” in the world.
Settling Ben’s estate, sorting endless technical, legal and financial papers, made me feel not only tired and angry (why did he leave so much work undone? Why do I have to do my part and his?), but also stupid— like that fourteen-year-old immigrant girl felt, having to learn so much so fast. I feel vulnerable, like long ago, unable to function at my accustomed level of competence. But then, almost at the same moment, I am marveling at the new skills I’ve learned so fast since Ben died; the new roles I’ve assumed. I recognize another aspect of that immigrant child—coping, elated, resilient.
Right after Ben died, my rabbi asked me if I would hold the Torah on Yom Kippur during the Kol Nidrei prayer, as Ben had always done, a role of great honor. That first year, I declined. I would have been the first woman at my temple ever to have been given this honor (it was an opportunity to set a precedent for the participation of women in this holiest ritual of the Jewish year), but I was not sure that the honor was being offered me on my account, and I didn’t want to attain privilege in the community through my husband’s death.
But the next Yom Kippur I accepted the honor—not because I was taking my husband’s place, and not because I was more worthy than other women— but because I had regained my center, I had gotten my bearings: It was time for me to assert my place among the elders of the congregation.
When my mother was dying in 1983 in Jerusalem, she got agitated when we, her grown children, visited her from our Jewishly-scattered homes in London, New York, and Switzerland. She felt an odd, desperate need to uproot herself one more time. “Ich weiss nit uf wesser Welt ich bin” she would say, over and over, in Yiddish. “I don’t know where I belong.” (Or, literally, “I don’t know in which world I am.”)
I imagined she was reliving earlier days—the unfinished agony of separating from loved ones, of fleeing the terror of persecutions. Survival meant to her uprooting herself, moving to different places. Now, confronting death, she lapsed into her old survival instincts: move, move, a wandering Jew.
But my own experience of loss and aging has been different, a slow awareness of an inner shift in my own sense of rootedness. I gradually have begun to feel that I indeed belonged in each and all of the places that I have ever called home—instead of feeling that I never really belonged anywhere.
I have gradually discarded much of the clutter that Ben and I had accumulated, that once assured me of my belonging and rootedness. I have moved into a new home, filled with mementos that are dear to me. As I feel less and less like a wandering soul, my present grief helps me to understand and further the healing of so much unattended earlier loss.
When I came to this country, I was in the springtime of my life. Now winter is in the air. I hope and believe that the lessons in personal adaptation, the fullness of a life created in partnership, and the richness of many cultures will continue to sustain me through this final season.
Rachel Josefowitz Siegel, M.S.W., is a feminist psychotherapist ill private practice in Ithaca, NY, and the co-editor of Jewish Women in Therapy: Seen But Not Heard (Harworth Press, 19??).