The Widow’s Dream

When Gladys’s doctor insisted she needed a hysterectomy, Gladys and her husband Ed had only two daughters. This was a significant blow to Ed, who thought women were useful but not important, and very much wanted to have a son to carry on the family name. Some men might have divorced Gladys and looked for a more capable bearer of sons. More men might have managed a mental re-adjustment and pinned the family aspirations and inheritance on one or both of the smart and pretty daughters. Ed was incapable of such alterations, and so he had one more thing in life to be disappointed about – or so he thought.

In fact, Ed was a very lucky man. Gladys, who had been brought up by a father even more misogynistic than the man she married, adored Ed. He claimed her when she was thirty-two and had given up hopes of any future other than the cash register at the A&P. Gladys was grateful. And she truly thought Ed was wonderful. He brought home a consistent paycheck, he didn’t smoke and seldom drank more than a couple of beers, and – while he was authoritarian in the extreme – he rarely had to even raise his voice to get compliance. Mostly, Gladys just did what he wanted as soon as she intuited what that was. When they were first married, if he thought it was more entertaining to watch wrestling than Jackie Gleason on their little black and white television, Gladys thought so too. When she tried a new recipe and he thought it was too mushy, she never served it again. When he brought friends home for dinner, she thought they were delightful. And she never invited anyone to the house without asking Ed first. He was the king of the domain and she was the morganatic bride who considered herself lucky to be tolerated and expected neither a title nor a great deal of respect.

Over time, this did not change. Gladys always considered herself blessed. And, as many of her friends divorced or suffered through their mate’s gambling addictions or occasional affairs, she became more and more convinced life was good. She adored Ed. Was she afraid of him? Surely, she feared his displeasure. But one can love someone whom one is afraid of, and if one loves very much, there is always some element of fear in the attachment, isn’t there?

When the girls were young, they just assumed their father must be wonderful because their mother said so and because he was treated with such deference. But they grew up feisty. The two girls were very different in how they handled him, for handle him they did. They had no choice if they wanted to survive at all. Emily, the eldest, was sly. She wore her dark bangs low and peered cautiously out from under the fringe. She told her father what he wanted to hear and then did what she wanted. She seldom got caught, but when she did the yelling just slid off her back. Gladys never yelled, but would just say over and over, “How could you do that to your father?” When Emily graduated high school and was about to turn eighteen, she left for a summer job at the beach and never lived at home again.

Mabel was both sentimental and translucent. She wore her fair hair pulled back to fully expose her round face. Mabel thought if she were just nice enough to her father he would understand how she needed more money for clothes, or to be out after ten o’clock, or to have her own telephone. She would present her case, plead, play gin rummy with him – and occasionally get some small concession but never make any great strides. Emily tried to convince her their old man was a lost cause, but Mabel couldn’t quite believe her besotted mother could be so wrong. She lived at home while attending the local community college and left when the first man asked her to marry him. Once she was out of the house and could spend her own money and listen to the radio any time she wanted, she realized how stifling her father had been. And she and Mabel started to feel sorry for their mother.

As Ed aged, things got worse. He began fretting about money, even though their little bungalow was long since paid for and he had a decent retirement from the telephone company where he had worked his whole life. He wouldn’t spend money on big things – no cruises or new cars or plasma TV’s – but he also fretted over the waste of small amounts of cold cuts or tuna fish and would drive Gladys crazy reviewing the receipt tapes from her trips to the market. He took to taking the garbage to the dump himself instead of paying a hauler, and their only car smelled of garbage. At home, he kept the heat set at 60 and refused to buy an air conditioner. And when the girls asked their mother if all this didn’t bother her, she just shrugged and said she was just happy he had lived to be 76.

But he never lived to 77. On Halloween night, Ed snorted in bed, rolled over onto Gladys, and was totally unresponsive when she tried to gently push him back to his side of the bed. Massive coronary thrombosis. The girls gladly helped their mother bury him and then sat back and hoped she would turn into a merry widow. Her bank accounts were healthy, she could collect 85% of his pension plus social security, and there was no reason life should not get better. Her daughters always prayed she would be the survivor and learn to enjoy life off the leash. In the near term, however, Gladys was inconsolable. “Stockholm syndrome,” said Emily, “she’ll get over it.”

But she didn’t. For the first six months, she continually talked about Ed in the present tense. “Have to get home and watch Law and Order,” she would say as she left Emily’s house. “Daddy likes that.” If Mabel asked her to turn up the thermostat when she came over for coffee on a January morning, Gladys would say, “I suppose I could, but Daddy thinks it makes sense to keep it low, you know.” Mabel would turn up the thermostat, but was never sure it stayed that way. Friends of Gladys invited her to play bridge, to volunteer with them at the animal shelter, to go on cruises. She tenuously committed to bridge and dog-walking, but could not bring herself to spend money on vacations or clothes or jewelry.

And then, in the May following Ed’s death, things started to change. Gladys’s sister Ada, whom Mabel and Emily hardly remembered, showed up for a visit. The next thing they knew, their mother was modeling a bright blue pants suit and showing them new pots and pans upon which “not a blessed thing would stick.” One day they rearranged the living room furniture. Gladys and Ada even signed up for a bus trip to the shore and were planning a cruise to Bermuda. Ada persuaded her to price central air conditioning, and they began looking at hybrid cars. Emily and Mabel were thrilled and cheered Ada on when their mother was out of the room. It seemed that during Ada’s mere two week stay, a miracle had been wrought.

And then Ada went home, and everything changed. Mabel came over one morning to find her mother in tears.

“I just cancelled my cruise with Ada, but they wouldn’t refund my 20% deposit,” she explained. “Your father will be so upset.”

Mabel wondered if her mother had gone off the deep end but decided to just try some gentle reality.

“Mom, Dad has been gone for almost a year. Remember, we had a memorial service and buried him next to Grandma and Grandpa. ”

Her mother just shook her head. “I know, I know – I’m not crazy! Really, I’m not. But he came to me in a dream last night and he was very angry about all the money I’m spending, and he couldn’t believe I got rid of his chair! His favorite chair! It was so real! It was him! It was right in the middle of that thunderstorm last night – the noise must have woken me up and I was shaking! I thought he was standing there next to the bed! Really! And he was so upset.”

Mabel stayed calm. “That’s the way it is when you wake up suddenly from a dream – but it’s still a dream. You may feel a little guilty about spending money on yourself, but – believe me – you have enough to take a few vacations and buy a little furniture. Please don’t take it so seriously.”

But Gladys did take it seriously. She shook her head and returned any items that still had the tags on them. She had a huge fight with Ada who also stood to lose money if she cancelled her trip and who decided to go to Bermuda alone. Then Ada called back even angrier when she found out she was going to have a pay a premium to have single accommodations. Nothing fazed Gladys. She kept telling the girls about her dream and how pleased she was their father was still looking out for her.

“And you too,” she said. “He particularly said I should keep an eye on both of you. I told him how good you both had been to me since he was gone.” The girls told her it was only a dream. Emily told her she dreamed about tigers, but she didn’t think there were really tigers in the basement.

But nothing budged Gladys. The thermostat went down, the old car stayed in the garage, and Gladys watched every penny. Ada didn’t come back, and Gladys seldom went out with her friends. Mabel and Emily were beside themselves. They tried everything. They went over her finances with her to show her she was more than comfortable; they said she deserved to enjoy herself a little in her old age. They offered to take her car shopping. Nothing helped. They enlisted the deacon at her church who came to the house for coffee. Gladys just smiled at Deacon Beth and exclaimed how amazing it was that her Ed was protecting her from the other world. Alleluia.

When the sisters stopped for coffee one day after leaving their mother’s house, Mabel broke down into tears. “I feel so bad for her. Mom thinks he’s watching her – it gives me the creeps.”

Emily was calm. “I could almost believe he was mean enough to try to control her from where he went – except I don’t think they allow the tenants down there to make long-distance calls. But he got to her while he was here, all right. He’s wired in her subconscious.”

They suggested counseling, but Gladys was having none of that. Besides, it cost money. They talked to her friends, but they just grimaced in frustration. Everyone except Emily was ready to admit Gladys might just be happier spending the rest of her life living to please her dead spouse.

Emily was not so easily thwarted, however. She had just stopped being actively angry with her father before he died and liked not thinking of him at all. But now – through her mother and her mother’s dream – he was back. An active influence. Enraging. This was not going to continue, she told her sister. Mabel merely shrugged. “She really believes he visited her,” she said.

“I know.”

“We’re just making her unhappy by pushing her.”

“I know.”

“So – shouldn’t we just accept the situation and leave her alone?”

“No way.”

Emily went out of her way to visit her mother more frequently – took her to dinner, out to a movie, helped her sort out her taxes. And then early one morning, Emily put on her most frightened little girl voice to call Gladys and say she had to come and talk to her mother right away.

When Emily arrived, there were fresh cinnamon rolls and the coffee was on. Not knowing the problem, Gladys had addressed it with comfort food. She was concerned about her daughter.

“What’s the matter, dear?” she asked the minute she opened the door.

Emily just shook her head, poured them both coffee, and pulled out chairs at the old maple kitchen table.

“I had such a dream last night,” she said, looking out from under her bangs and into her mother’s eyes.