After 39 years of marriage, her husband, Herman-“H”- collapsed suddenly and died in the lobby of their apartment building.
We had talked about this. He was born 12 years before I was. He was in good health and good mind but the possibility of widowhood haunted me. He said that it would be a compliment to our marriage, to his love for me and mine for him, if I managed this widowhood well and was able to enjoy my life with another partner or without. He expected that of me. He told me a dozen times in the last few years that I had made him happy. This was comforting but not comforting enough. The ash was still in my mouth. The log remained in my stomach. I considered that he had asked too much of me.
We had argued about the bedroom wallpaper. It had been on the wall when we moved into the apartment some 18 years ago. The pattern was of repeated small bunches of flowers, blues and yellows, little touches of roses, and they were on a background of ivory and very dense, so that they seemed at a quick glance like a field full of wildflowers. This wallpaper spoke of New England inns and farmhouses in the plains. It was already dingy at the edges when we moved in. Increasingly the background turned to gray and there were peeling strips along the baseboard. I wanted to change the paper. H. wanted to leave it be. He was attached to it. He didn’t want to spend the money. He liked it. He saw no reason for change.
I think of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s book The Yellow Wallpaper, written in 1899. A woman suffers from a terrible grief after giving birth to a daughter and is confined by her doctor to a bedroom with yellow wallpaper where she goes gradually mad until she kills herself. This novel is considered a primary feminist text. This is a story about how men impose literal and symbolic immobility. Here is a woman deprived of her own volition, chained to an infant, subservient to a husband and without hope. True, I said, dear Charlotte Perkins Gilman, true. I had been an early feminist. My mother had hobbled about on her Cuban heels while I had a first serve that whizzed past the boys. But I always had a tendency to wander from the political line. In the 70s I never considered that men were to blame for all oppression and I never believed that children were a burden. Mine sometimes were and sometimes were not.
I was raised, child of the 40s, girl of the 50s, to flirt, to flatter, to flutter about. Those are traits that are hard to remove just because the climate changes. I admit to a desire, lifelong, to put my hand in a man’s hand and let him lead me through the thicket of taxes and insurance and such. I want to go walking in the woods with a man pushing aside the heavier brush. I want a man to call a taxi or help me over a fence. I have always thought of men as the necessary other. The only question in my mind has been which man and when I married H. the question was answered. Still drifting, avoiding memories, sitting on my bed and not moving, finding it hard to go to the store and buy the barest of necessities, I was aware that in this widowhood I could use a sharp infusion of feminist pride, a sense of my own power, a disinterest in attachment, a venturesome soul daring to walk my own path. My first not-so-firm step was to remove the old wallpaper.
From Epilogue: A Memoir by Anne Roiphe. Copyright © 2008 by Anne Roiphe. Reprinted by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.