Helen Chappell: March 2006

The Attack of the Casserole Ladies,
And Other Perils Of Being A Widower
Helen Chappell

     It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that widowers do not cope as well as widows. Death is tragic, this much is true. And it is far more tragic for those who are left behind...especially men.
      When a woman loses her husband, she will grieve, then straighten her spine, buy some new clothes and take a cruise. When she returns, she will spend time with her friends, perhaps take up bridge or some other occupation. She will get a job or volunteer her time to a worthwhile cause. Sometimes, after a glass of wine or a cocktail or two, she will confess that she’s found personal fulfillment in widowhood. Like most stereotypes, this is not always true, but stereotype become stereotypes for a reason.
      For a generation of women who went from their parent’s home to their husbands, with perhaps a stop for college or school, once the grieving has abated, there is a newfound sense of self. The kids are grown and out of the house, and the husband is no longer there to be cooked and cleaned for and waited upon. Later in life, a woman may find herself suddenly freed to make her own choices and her own independent life. And she may enjoy this enormously.
      There is another kind of woman, when finding herself suddenly single, will go in pursuit of a new husband. A tiny increment of this type firmly believe, for whatever reasons, that they are nothing without a man. These may become casserole ladies.
      Now, when many a man loses his wife, he will sit on the couch in his underwear, in the dark, clutching a lukewarm beer, watching his team lose on the wide screen TV. All his married life, his wife has taken care of the domestic chores and made his world run smoothly. Usually, she picked up right where his mamma left off.
      Without a woman in his life, he’s as lost as a babe in the woods. He may not know how to run a vacuum cleaner or separate his darks from his lights. While he may be an expert on the grill, preparing a simple dinner in the kitchen may be an overwhelming task, fraught with peril. In general, it’s my theory that widowers do not fare well on their own.
      There are, of course, exceptions to these scenarios. Widows who are lost in a limbo of helplessness without their husbands, men who can cook and clean and plan their social lives very well, thank you, can and do exist. The human heart is a wide open space, a vast plane of terra incognita. You can’t stick everyone into the same cookie cutter.
      In my experience, however, my stereotypes are far more common than one might think. I used to think this was only true of my parent’s generation, but since some of my peers have begun to drop off the perch, I’m also seeing it in my own generation.
      Boomers tend to be single because of divorce rather than death. Although I have known of some cases where one partner’s suggestion of divorce ended in death, often in most unpleasant ways. Because there are about 10 single women to every single man in these parts, and because the single man pickings are pretty slim to start with, the odds are against the women.
      Most unattached Boomer men, in my experience, tend to be gay, married but think they’re not, have multi-page rap sheets of Serious Issues. Including an inability to get over the bitter residue of their last marriage. What I am trying to say is divorced men just have less appeal than widowers. For one thing, most of them around here are divorced because they traded in their wife for a younger, blonder model. And for another, they don’t quite arouse the nurturing sympathy a bereaved and bereft guy triggers in most women.
      Which is not to say that those closeted gays, philanderers, criminals and mental cases do not find women. As noted above, some women are so convinced they’re nothing without a man that they will settle for any guy who’s breathing.
      It’s the widower who’s considered the real prize, though. It’s much more romantic for the poor thing to have buried his wife than to have dumped her for a waitress at the club. Even the most commonplace man somehow takes on the air of Heathcliff on the moors when he becomes a widower. For one thing, it’s sad, and for another, that air of tragic loss creates a vacuum some woman is just dying to fill.
      And that’s how we get the casserole ladies.
      When my mother died after a long illness, my father, living in Oxford, the newly wed and the nearly dead capitol of the Mid-Shore, suddenly found himself the bemused center of the attention of many, many widowed ladies, many of who he barely knew.
      Now, of course, my father was a prize as far as I was concerned; I was, after all, his daughter and inclined to be prejudiced in his favor. But I could also see what would make him attractive to the widows and divorcees of a certain age. He was a retired surgeon, a sliver-haired gentleman of not inconsiderable charm. Adding to the nuptial sweepstakes he had a lovely waterfront house and a comfortable income. Add to that – he had spent the last year’s of my mother’s life as her primary care giver and you had an attractive package.
      Some women just love a caring man. I think they figure, rightly, that he is probably in need of some caring himself.
      I’m not going to say that some women smelled blood in the water, but perhaps having enjoyed their previous status as married ladies a lot less than widowhood, they were determined to catch a new man.
      Now, whenever there is a death, there is a flow of food to the house of mourning. That is the custom of the country, and quite a nice one too, as nothing soothes grief quite as well as alcohol and sugar and a nice chicken and dumpling casserole.
      Needless to say, we were bombarded with food from the moment my mother was carried up to Newman’s. Much of it was tendered by friends of my parents, and most of those were ladies who were rock-solid married, and just doing their neighborly duty with the cakes, the pies and the stringbean casseroles. After all, no period of mourning is complete without enough casseroles to feed the entire population of a third world country. Even our bachelor neighbor chipped in with a nice mess of steamed crabs.
      But soon I noticed perfect stranger ladies coming to the door with their offerings. As I offered my thanks and tried to take their lasagna or beef Stroganoff, they were peering over my shoulder for a glimpse of my dad.
      More than one used a tennis-toned arm laden with rings and gold bracelets to strong-arm her way past me, the Guardian Gatekeeper, into the kitchen where my dad, still in a state of shock, sat nursing his grief and a nice self-prescribed martini.
      I couldn’t help but notice some of them assessing our furnishings as they started strafing the house, doing a mental inventory of the price of the antiques and the majolica collection. Dropping by with their own floral arrangements, their home baked cookies, their garden produce, they would just sit right down, uninvited, eye the old man as if he were the prize bull at Dill’s Livestock Auction. Or as much of a prize as a 78 year old man could be. Age, being I suppose, no object, when matrimony is in mind.
      I think at first, he was too dazed to even know or care he was being courted, and I thought it was rather sweet that neighbors we’d never met were coming out of the woodwork to be nice.
      After my mother’s funeral and the wake, I thought things would die down somewhat. Still. I moved temporarily into the guesthouse to look after my father because that was what you did, men not being very good at cooking and cleaning and being without someone to argue politics with. I was young and dumb.
      After a lifetime of being waited on by women, in the office, in the operating room and at home, I think my father was pretty much used to having someone female around to do whatever needed to be done, and like most men in the professions, he’d take it for granted that women would be dive bombing his with food, with invitations to dinner and to events. Since his retirement, he’d been pretty much a homebody. His idea of going out was to head down to Bringman’s in the morning for a second cup of coffee, the newspapers and the gossip with all the other retired guys, then on to the PO for more socializing. Sometimes, he’d go to lunch or dinner at the Robert Morris Inn, where he enjoyed holding court in the tavern, over crab soup and rockfish.
      After a while, they weren’t just coming to the door. The casserole ladies were circling him wherever he went. To me, they all seemed to be well-to-do widows with helmet heads of blond hair, leathery skin from years of sailing and tennis, and enormous diamonds set in rings for their long nailed fingers, or huge golden hunks of jewelry on their wrists, their ears and their ample bosoms.
      There was a subtle smell of desperation about them, as if it were a top note in their Youth Dew perfume. They wanted a man, and my father happened to fit their particular bill. He had money and he was breathing. Wherever he went there for a while, they seemed to have a sixth sense that allowed them to track him on their casserole lady radar.
      I think he was rather amused by it all. My father was a man’s man, a sportsman and a ducking enthusiast who wasn’t terribly interested in rarefied atmospheres and the sort of social intrigue that the casserole ladies doted upon. And I do believe they would have given the same treatment to any eligible widower who washed up on the geriatric shores of Oxford. Widowers being so much more desirable that divorcees, who tend to have messy pasts and complex entanglements.
      I’m guessing, but when my father quietly married a lovely woman, a widow he’d known most of his life, a few of them were disappointed.
      To this day, a good widower can pretty much have his pick of the casserole ladies. Maybe he just gets tired of living on casseroles and yearns for some home cooking and female companionship. After all, many a smart and savvy casserole lady had landed herself a wonderful second marriage, and more power to her and her new husband if they make each other happy.
      Love is a strange thing, but so is loneliness. Those grieving men sitting in the dark really do need to find a casserole lady. After all, someone has to take care of them while the other widows are out doing the rhumba on A deck in the Caribbean with Raoul the dance instructor.