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Jewish World Review Oct. 15, 2001 / 28 Tishrei, 5762

Bob Greene

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From a widow, words as soft as moonglow -- PLEASE forgive a proud son if he steps away, just for this one day, from stories about violence and hatred and a world torn by terror and war.

This is a column that I think I'd want to write regardless of the identity of the person it's about. An 82-year-old woman, who has devoted her entire adult life to her husband and children, writes her first book. It is immediately accepted by a major publisher, it receives glowing pre-publication reviews, it is excerpted in the country's largest-circulation magazine (AARP's Modern Maturity), the woman is invited to be a guest on the "Today" show. . . .

As I say, I think I'd want to write the story anyway. But I especially do because of who the woman is.

She's my mother.

When my father died in December of 1998, my mom -- without telling any of her three children at first -- began to keep a journal. No one had ever told her what it would be like to be a widow -- she, like all women who lose their husbands, was finding out for herself. The changes in a woman's life -- the small ones and the large ones -- that can overwhelm her. . . .

When she did tell me what she was doing, my only role was to encourage her. Just get it all down on paper, I told her; I don't want to read it until you have finished.

She finished. As she wrote: "Of one thing I am sure: What is well one day is sick at heart the next, what is laughter one hour may be tears the next. In an effort to chart my own road to acceptance (I think it is there, somewhere ahead), I began to keep a journal on December 31, three weeks after my husband's death. Now as I look back, I wonder if I have walked a mile or one hundred, if I am out in front or lagging way behind, if there is a `norm,' and might it help me, and if there are others who may read this who would share my journey as I go? I would welcome the company."

Her book -- not about grief, but about inspiration and strength -- has just been published. Eighty-two years old -- a first-time author -- and there it is. The book is "It Must Have Been Moonglow: Reflections on the First Years of Widowhood." By Phyllis Greene.

I can't be objective, of course -- how can I, when I read the words through moist eyes? But I know this: She has shown me what a widow goes through. The fears and frustrations of driving alone at night, the solo trips for dinner, the sounds of the house when there are no sounds at all, the conversations she starts to have with her late husband as she realizes that he is no longer there . . . it is a sorority, as she describes it, a sorority no one chooses to join: the sorority of widowhood.

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At sundown, "I look over at his chair and raise my glass and say, as I always did, `Here's to you, old dear,' and almost see him. In the night, too, I instinctively look over at his bed and listen for his breathing."

And: "I buy bigger purses since I have no one to carry the compact or lipstick I often asked him to put in his pocket. Never before was I the keeper of the keys."

She learns from others: "I have a friend who told me that the first time her widowed mother went to the grocery after her husband's death, she burst into tears as she picked up one baking potato to put in her cart. One potato in a grocery cart. The perfect symbol of widowhood."

At 3 a.m., when she can't sleep, she sees a light in the bedroom of a house across the way -- the house of a man who recently lost his wife. "As I look across the little valley separating us, the poignancy of the situation hits me full force. We may be almost strangers. We have not had enough in common to generate a friendship. I would not even know the man if I saw him. But that light in his bedroom late at night tells me all I need to know about him. I know his heart."

The title of the book is a line from my mother and father's favorite song. And this is really a book about two people who love each other, even though one is no longer present:

"There is one picture in my mind that I return to over and over," she writes. On a summer evening, they had been going out, and he had forgotten something at the house and had gone back to retrieve it.

"As he comes back up the hill, in his tan poplin suit and his repp stripe tie and his blue button-down shirt, tan and healthy, with his great smile, I know that once and forever God is in His heaven and all is right with the world."

She draws strength from that: "Last night I awoke at about 2 a.m., as I often do, but unlike other nights, I tried to stay awake rather than wish myself back to sleep. For the next hour, I remembered fun and funny times, places we had been, friends with whom we had shared vacations and nights on the town, and laughs -- lots of laughs -- and I warmed myself in the glow."

The world is about to find out something about my mother that my brother, my sister and I have known for a long time:

She's the best of all of us.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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