Silk flowers, grey with time, lay in a small silver box lined with tissue. Shaky fingers played with the petals’ fragile edges. The silk and paper now broken down, perished from time itself.
‘Your vows exchanged, your hands now joined. Congratulations.’
If she could hold his hands again, would she? They were twenty when they married. Twenty-five when he divorced her. No reason given and none asked. Sixty years ago. Gregory was her first husband and her last.
He wasn’t killed in action to proud proclamation. Nor died of age or accident. She had no pride in her divorce and never mentioned it.
But she did grieve. She did feel despair and cold misery. A divorcee drew no respect. No children to bring her age to a natural conclusion. No grand-children to sit on her lap and listen with intent to stories of meaning and value. She’d outlasted the rest of her family, but even as the last survivor of her generation there were no nieces or nephews who cared to visit.
She lives here with twenty other infirm women. Everyone here will die. All have advice to offer. Not so Eileen. No common threads of wedding anniversaries and birth stories, no pride in offspring and their dreams. She doesn’t speak to them. Instead she turns her head away whenever she’s approached.
‘Cold,’ they call her.
But what conversation do you have about divorce in an aged person’s home?
A woman says ‘I’m a widow,’ and hands reach out to reassure. Everyone knows a widow feels great depth of pain. Anguish, sorrow, heartbreak. Eileen’s feelings about the divorce include similar words, but they are tempered with others. Freedom. Release. Celebration. What conversation could start with these? Who at age eighty-five speaks of the relief of being alone?
What would happen if she told? The grief of one ‘not-a-widow’ seems to mock those who are. But that’s not her intent. Eileen doesn’t want to touch another’s feelings, to share in any moment of equality, of sameness, of connection.
In her days alone she travelled the world. She worked in jobs most suited to the young and the unencumbered. How do you maintain dignity in conversation with other geriatrics when you’ve spent half your life as a hostess in a jazz club? She sways a little in her day chair, recalling the music of Bennie Goodman, humming gently under her breath. Who would listen if she spoke of her memories? Of the men, the millionaires, the holidays abroad, the cruise ships, the troops she entertained with dance and song and, sometimes, love.
And while around her others cry for husbands lost to cancer or Parkinson’s or just old age, Eileen is left alone to feel the grief, the empty soul, the memories excoriating. They see her tears and condescendingly pat her hand.
‘You’re grieving,’ they say. ‘It will get easier.’
Will it? Who would know?