Welcome to the last half of the first month of the first month of January! I probably should have written this post a few weeks ago but I didn’t so the streets will get the post I give them.
I just wanted to tell you that I have a lot going on this month, and want to invite you to play along, in person and online. Without further ado, we proudly present…Your Dinner!
(No, that’s not it.)
“Listen, World” chat with Allison Gilbert, January 19, 7-9 PM Greedy Reads, 1744 Aliceanna Street, Baltimore. Join me to talk about the work and life of veteran journalist Elsie Robinson with co-author Gilbert.
“Fine Beats and Cheeses,” Tuesdays at 6 a.m: My sister Lynne Streeter Childress and I host a weekly podcast about the sublime cheesy things that our guests love and feel not a bit guilty about. Available wherever you find podcasts. Come find us!
I WROTE ANOTHER BOOK!: I finished my first novel this week. It’s so far from being sold and ready for you to see, but I want you to look out for it. It’s fiction, and about grief, regret, journalism and fancy hotels. You’re gonna like it.
“SAVED: Objects of the Dead”: I have an essay in this moving collection from Jody Servon and Lorene Delany-Ullman, featuring things that grieving people have saved of their loved ones, and why. Mine is about pacifiers. It’s a gorgeous book and a beautiful testament to how memory informs the meaning of simple objects.
If you’re not busy at 7 EST on Sunday, Dec. 11, why not check out a gun virtual book club event! The dynamic Latrina Graves McCarty will be hosting the event on Facebook Live! Join us at her page as we talk about “Black Widow” and the journey (you know how I feel about that word) that got me here!
And it was with that explanation of what her first kiss with a man who was not the late love of her life that I made peace with the affinity I have always felt for “Sex and The City”‘s Carrie Bradshaw. Even though the fictional relationship writer has been, canonically, a bad friend, weirdly bi-phobic, super selfish and shockingly bad with money, I’ve often referred to myself as sort of a Black Carrie Bradshaw, as I, too have made a living writing about the ups and downs of dating, friendship and that hot bar you must see and be seen in.
And with the recent HBO Max reboot “And Just Like That…” which finished its shaky but promising first season, we are also widows. Which sucks. Didn’t see that connection coming. But the show, as much as it’s gotten wrong about some character arcs – I STILL hate the wimpy way it’s dealt with Miranda’s relationship with Che, and if the person I was in love with announced their cross-country move with a terrible live version of “California Girls,” I’d take this as a sign and bounce – it’s gotten so much of the experience right, at least from my experience.
It’s been everything from when to take off your ring, when to date and, in this episode, the final resting place of someone you thought would still be resting next to you on the other side of the bed. Since his death, Mr. Big’s remains have been in a box in Carrie’s closet with her shoes, but after a lunch with her brother-in-law Richard (SPOILER ALERT!), the Widow Bradshaw Preston must consider what to do with the ashes.
There was a moment when Richard sketches out the family plot in which John/Big might have a spot, and then mentions that one seems to be freeing up for Carrie, so “the two of you could be together forever,” that reminds me so much of my real-life widowhood. The day after my husband Scott died, I was standing in a graveyard with a funeral home salesman trying to sell me a crypt where Scott would be interred first, and then me in several decades, so our “heads and hearts would be touching forever.”
Not surprisingly, that option doesn’t work for either me or Carrie, and she winds up in Paris, the site of their reunion at the end of the original series, to cast his ashes off a bridge in a gorgeous gown (I am not rich so I just buried Scott in a nice cemetery in Lake Worth, Fl, in a nice dress from an Ann Taylor Loft outlet.) The scene moved me greatly – saying goodbye is never an easy thing, as Taylor Dayne once sang – and it’s both sweet and heartbreaking. (Apparently Chris Noth, who played Big, was supposed to have been seen in a dream sequence before he was cut out after sexual assault accusations. It wasn’t a great edit but I kinda liked just hearing his ghostly voice. Ghosts and dreams are weird.)
I didn’t enjoy “And Just Like That…” as much as I’d imagined, because I thought it tried too hard to right some of the wrongs of the original series like its lack of representation of anyone who wasn’t a straight, White woman, and because, again, they completely rewrote Miranda and Steve’s love story into some arrangement she was talked into. NO. We saw how hot they were together, and them getting back together on the Brooklyn Bridge at the end of the first movie. Be better, writers.
But I gotta tell you that I enjoyed much of the widowhood story because Carrie was exactly like you’d think she’d be. Heartbroken. Self-focused, like using “My husband died!” as a way to win any argument. Sad/funny. It’s not exactly like how I did it, or how you’d do it. But it seemed like her. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Long before I was known as a someone who writes about grief, a subject no one wants to be an expert in, I wrote about movies, something everyone wants to be in expert in. For about ten years, I had a column called “The Flick Chick,” offering snarky, funny (I hope) takes on film, inciting the wrath of “Love, Actually” fans everywhere. (Because I’m not one of them.)
For the first time in almost 30 years I find myself not being paid to write about entertainment, which means that when live events start again I’ll have to pay for them. Also, I miss that outlet, starting those cultural conversations and having virtual high-fives across the Internet. So since I’m paying the fees for this website anyway, I’m starting an occasional series blending the two things I know the best – the joy of the movies and the soul-crushing devastation of widowhood.
Who’s with me?
Up first: 1993’s “Sleepless In Seattle,” which I first saw in 1993 and fell in love with because of the dreamy soundtrack, its bittersweet take on the difference between being in love and being in love in the movies, and its gorgeous views of my native Baltimore, which I’d left the year before and wouldn’t move back to for another 27 years. (It also features my favorite celluloid description of being a Features reporter faced with yet another hoary holiday story: “New Years Eve. Please don’t make me write it.”)
Now, as a widowed parent, the story of soulfully sad Sam (Tom Hanks) and Annie (Meg Ryan), the winsome Baltimore Sun reporter who falls for his honest and heartbreaking radio account of how much he misses his late wife, hits closer to home. It’s also a reminder that in 1993, being played by America’s Sweetheart Meg Ryan meant that it wasn’t immediately obvious that a character was an obsessed stalker who uses company funds to fly cross-country to follow a widowed man and his vulnerable child. But more about that later.
One of things that didn’t really compute for me when I saw this in my 20s is that “Sleepless In Seattle” isn’t really a rom-com in the traditional sense, where a character’s past is what’s holding them back from finding love with the perfect person who’s right there if they’d just look up. It’s really about loving while grieving, opening yourself up to happiness when your first happiness got ripped from you. One of my least-favorite things about how widows are usually written in Hallmark movies is that the protagonist is usually the cute lady who falls in love with the sad widowed carpenter or farmer thus proving her own character growth. The late partner is a plot device, a ploy to make the character extra-super sad so you know what the stakes are. So sorry, Dead Wife! He’s moved on!
But here, Sam’s wife, played in flashback by Carey Lowell and her flawless pixie cut, is more than the catalyst for his next happy ever after. She’s the reason for the whole thing, and how he and his son Jonah grapple with her loss colors their relationship with each other and with everyone else they know, including Annie. Sam moves them to Seattle from Chicago because he wants to be in a city where, he says, he isn’t haunted by memories of his wife walking across the street. I heard that and I was like “Damn! What widow wrote this? Because THIS IS THE TRUTH.”
Sam is trying to hold it all together and make a life for his grieving son, who wakes up in the middle of the night crying for his dead mother and is afraid of forgetting her face, which seems like a betrayal. And he can’t stop it. Sam wants to make it OK and start over but he can’t give him or his son the thing they really want, which is Carey Lowell and her pixie cut back on this side of eternity. And, again, they can’t.
Before, I would have said that my favorite scene was Rita Wilson trying to describe “An Affair To Remember” through a series of sobs and hand motions, a thing that should have gotten her an Oscar nomination. But now, it’s when Sam, fresh from comforting Jonah (who is an insufferable brat that I now give some credit because of his grief), imagining talking to his wife. And he, too, is haunted by the specter of forgetting – He imagines her not being able to remember the toast she used to make. And it’s gutting. I had to stop the recording for a minute and take a breath, remembering talking out loud to my husband who could no longer hear me. And it was all there – the love, the regret, the melancholy realization that in your head is the only way you’ll hear their voice unless it’s on video.
I remember a lot of critics and fans were annoyed that Annie and Sam (spoiler alert!) don’t meet in person until the last scene, standing on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, like in “An Affair To Remember.” Before that, he’s a voice she hears on the radio, and she’s one of the women who writes to him, moved by his pain. She never actually intends to send the letter (her best friend does), but Jonah reads it and becomes convinced that she’s the one for him and his dad, writing his own letter back to her pretending to be Sam. In him, I see my own kid, who has now started asking for a new dad, and who sees himself as my protector (Oww, painful heart feels.)
Jonah’s still a brat – the way he speaks to his dad is written as cute when it’s worth at least a hell of a grounding, but his actions are that of a grieving kid. The person who really deserves a stern talking-to, if not a restraining order, is Annie, who projects her boredom with her perfectly nice fiancee Walter (Bill Pullman, who, as he tells her later, deserves better) into a fantasy obsession with Sam. In the movie’s most “Did y’all actually write that?” moment, Annie hires a private investigator to look into Sam and Jonah, under the guise of writing a story on Sam, and flies to Seattle to hide behind buildings and watch them. It’s not charming. It’s creepy. As much as I always loved the ending, where the three meet in New York and there seems to be a spark, I always wonder if Annie ever says “So…I kinda stalked you and your kid.” Because that’s not cute. (I also wonder if she ever reimbursed The Sun for all that travel.)
I still love “Sleepless In Seattle,” just differently. I no longer see myself as Annie, the wistful dreamer looking for love, but as Sam, trying to make sure his heart hasn’t died along with his wife. While so many widow movies seem to think that being ready to date means you’re healed and moving on, “Sleepless In Seattle” reminds us that your late love never leaves you. They aren’t something to get over, a glitch. Any new life you have is built on the one you had, and even if you find happiness again, you’ll always be that person’s widow.
There was always a sadness to this movie that I got – I mean, it was about a man who lost his wife, right? But now I understand that the point isn’t whether Sam finds love with Annie, or whether they’re meant to be. It’s that he’s opening himself up to that possibility. Maybe not with a stalker. But to love.
Forgive my impertinence bringing up a long-ago pop culture moment as the fate of our nature is hanging in the balance – and if you don’t believe that you aren’t paying attention.
But I am reminded, in this bleak time, of an episode of “Project Runway” from way back in 2006, which seems like a fairyland in the sky compared to now. A contestant named Kara was having a freak-out during a partner challenge, which was taking up valuable time from the work she and partner Zulema had to design. I don’t think there’s one person who hasn’t been faced with enormous pressure and felt like curling up on the floor surrounded by all the ice cream and wine and sobbing. All of the sobs.
Kara was having one of those moments, and Zulema, who hadn’t signed onto this show to be a therapist, figured out a way to acknowledge Kara’s frustrations while keeping it moving. “You’re gonna cry,” she said, “AND CUT.”
In other words, cry all the tears you have to cry, get in them feelings and let it out, but only if you can do that while cutting fabric and making a pretty outfit and not making me have to deal with Michael Kors’ efforts to be clever while crushing my dreams.
And this is where we find ourselves. We’re in a pandemic. We have elections coming up. The West Coast is burning. Our heroes our dying. Shenanigans are afoot. Racists abound. It’s not good here. We are scared. We should be scared. And it would seem appropriate to panic, give up, sob and flee to Canada. However, Canada doesn’t currently want us, so that’s not an option.
I want to cry – I have cried. But I know that sinking into despair doesn’t lead to much more than more despair and a very wet shirt. What we can do is to let that fear, sadness and anger turn into action. We must vote. We must raise awareness and use our voices and pain to inform each other. We must check in on each other and raise ourselves up. We have a choice to make about what kind of country we want to be, what kind of people we want to be.
Grief is tiring, strength-sucking and awful. But if we are going to survive, we have to gather the shards and make them into something. We have to rest when we must, feel our feelings and name them.
I meant to write something on Tuesday, but waiting gave me something really good to write about – not that it’s not usually good. But this is gooood. It’s about Derek Jeter getting into Cooperstown almost unanimously.
This means that everybody but one voter was enthusiastic about the former Yankee being voted into the Hall of Fame on his first-ever ballot. And because the world is the way that it is and people love stupid controversy, a lot of writers are focusing on the .3 percent of the vote he didn’t get, not the 99.7 that he did.
And boy is that relatable! I am happy to say that I am mostly well liked, that as far as I know, the public opinion of me, such as it is, is positive. More than positive. But like most humans, my brain and heart can’t let go of the small portion of attention I get that is negative. Most of the time, it’s racist trolls on the Internet and that’s cool to ignore, because they’re like the guy who booed everybody at the 1990 Zeta Phi Beta “Showtime at the Apollo” show I did at the University of Maryland where I only sang one verse of “When I Fall In Love” so I could get out quick – they exist to boo people and you can’t take that personally.
It is possible that the one voter who didn’t go for Mr. Jeter is a troll, that they’ve gotta be different, that they doesn’t believe in unanimous ballots, because everyone’s gotta work for it. Maybe they’re just a jerk. Or maybe they really don’t think he’s earned it. Which is weird, because…Derek Jeter.
But sometimes we feel how we feel. And I try to remember that in my life – whether it’s readers or critics or co-workers. You are not everybody’s jam. And that’s OK. Even when you’re 99.7 of the people’s jam, you want to close in that number, but you can’t. It’s not realistic.
So what do you do with that? Decide that your worth is based on who you know you are, that your efforts are solid, and that if it’s important to achieve things based on other people’s opinions – like a new job or Miss America or the Hall of Fame, you have to trust that you’ve done enough. That you know who you are and that you are good. When I started pitching my book “Black Widow” I knew that everyone was not going to like it or get it. I got turned down about 15 times before an agent said yes. And we got turned down probably the same amount of times to sell it before two publishing companies made an offer.
What I’m saying is that you can’t sweat everyone not loving you. Even Derek Jeter has said that he doesn’t care who that “no” voter is, and that he’s focusing on being appreciated and voted in and loved. I had a review last week from the notoriously picky Kirkus Review that mostly liked the book but had to mention that “Black Widow” wasn’t “a top-shelf” grief memoir. And you know what? That’s fine. The reviewer’s praise was not complete. But it was solid. I don’t have to be top-shelf. Not everyone needs the Ritz-Carlton. I am happy to be the Courtyard By Marriott of grief memoirs. Comfy, clean and gets it done.
And when we focus more on getting it done than being universally beloved, I believe we get more right.
It’s almost Biblical- whenever two or more Black women, particularly professional ones, are gathered, there is a story about how some idiot assumed them to be the help. Or the intern. Or led with a comment about their hair, body, ethnicity or gender in a conversation that was supposed to be about their career or their achievements.
And because none of us want to go to jail, the story usually never ends with “And then I punched him in the face and told him to stop calling me out of my name,” because society demands that we suck it up with the very grace we are denied and keep moving.
The death of radio personality Don Imus reminded me of that unspoken edict. A decade ago, he and his crew found great humor in calling a group of high-achieving college athletes “nappy-headed hos” and “jigaboos” on the air. I remember watching the coverage, hearing the middle-school giddiness in the hosts’ voices as these repeated these insults created to denigrate women like me. How much fun to say! How clever we are! I remember thinking “These women made their way to the championships, with their grandmothers and teachers and friends watching, and THIS is how they’re being described on national television? This is what they think of us?”
And then I watched Imus’ defenders fall over themselves, as they are doing at his death, to say it was just a joke. Can’t you take a joke? He talks about everyone that way! Rappers did it first! Be mad at them and clean up your own house first! Black comedians said the exact same thing! Why aren’t you mad at them?
First, let me answer those questions: If it was a joke, it was soul-destroying joke punching down at high-achieving women whose only offense was being excellent in a skin y’all found hilarious; Yes, when it’s funny; Doesn’t make it right, doesn’t make it right; I am mad at them and that doesn’t mean y’all need to pile on; we are mad at them too and worry about your own self.
Next, let me say this: The reality of being a black woman is to constantly duck racialized and gendered nonsense and then have to take it lest anyone call you aggressive and full of attitude. It is to achieve great things while being called Affirmative Action hires and then be gaslit and told it never happened. Or not to take it that way. Yes this happens to other people. No we are not talking about them right now.
Imus, who also referred to accomplished journalist Gwen Ifill, who covered the White House and is now on a postal stamp as “the cleaning lady,” apparently loved his family and raised money for cancer children. That’s nice to know. That changes nothing about what he said, how he blithely and thoughtlessly tossed off words that removed the humanity of an apparent countless stream of people because he knew he could couch it as a joke and his listeners were going to approve. That his apology, after which he admitted he knew better and did it anyway, was enough.
It is not enough. Apologizing for something you knew was wrong because you got called on it is not enough. You’re not sorry. You’re caught.
I can’t speak to the number of people who were apparently helped by him, who were mentored by him and who are tributing him for helping their careers. That’s great. That’s your personal Don Imus story. Here’s mine. When I heard those comments, as a black entertainment journalist winning awards in a field where I was constantly told I didn’t belong, I felt seen, as the kids say, but not in a good way. I remember feeling flushed, feeling personally embarrassed, even though he and his crew weren’t talking about me. The point is that they could have been, because if I’d come across their line of sight at a time they were feeling particularly jaunty, there’s no reason to believe they wouldn’t have said the same thing about me.
I am a widow who has buried more people I love than I care to remember, so I will never, ever celebrate someone’s death. Ever. I am not glad that Don Imus is dead, because that’s cruel, and negates his humanity he sought to take from others. But I will say that you can’t ask those who remember to swallow their bitterness and not speak out, to not remind you all that he had no qualms about reducing the Rutgers team and Gwen Ifill to stereotypes, to remind them that no matter how hard you work, no matter how excellent you are, you are still somebody’s nappy-headed ho.
Part of my superpower as a life-long Features writer is relating seemingly random things to each other and writing pithy, moving and meaningful pieces about them. Thus, I’m going to make a connection between hanging out with a group of widows – my people – for the weekend, relationship goals, a fictional minivan murder and Peter Cetera’s gorgeously schmaltzy 1986 masterpiece “The Glory of Love” from “The Karate Kid II.”
Yes, Daniel-San figures prominently into my current love philosophy , just not in the way I thought in 1986 when I was hanging ripped-out glossy “Bop” magazine posters of Ralph Macchio in my locker. Wonders never cease.
So, I watch an NBC show called “Good Girls” about three moms who become a criminal enterprise, and it’s dark and funny in ways that make me feel bad about laughing. That happened in last week’s episode (SPOILER!) when a truly despicable guy was accidentally run down with a minivan by the (sketchy) woman he’d blackmailed into a relationship. The whole thing was set to chorus of “The Glory of Love,” where Mr. Cetera earnestly pledges to be “a man who would fight for your honor” and “the hero that you’re dreaming of.” But everybody here is awful, nobody has any honor, and in the end, the lady becomes her own hero, in a way, by getting rid of the man she was kind of trying to love. It’s super-cynical and mean, and it made me start thinking about my own approach to love.
And no, that doesn’t include running people over with my minivan. I don’t even have a minivan. Or run people over. Y’all can put the phone down.
What I mean is that like a lot of little girls, I grew up loved the idea of a man being willing to fight for me, to selflessly face dragons and wars and evil karate guys to save me, and to keep me safe. I used to and still do wear that Peter Cetera song OUT in the car. Back in the day, I was imagining the handsome man who was going to lay it all on the line for me. Decades later I married my late husband Scott, who was that man, but with a twist. Scott was not a cute young karate guy – he was a chunky middle-aged guy who fought most of his battles with sharply worded emails and calls to people’s managers. But I have no doubt he would have taken off his rings and thrown down for me if necessary. He had my back, in all things, and the thing that seemed most heroic about him is that he knew that I would fight for him, too.
Which is to say he was the hero that I’d been dreaming of, and I was his hero, too. He saw me not as a helpless damsel who needed someone to save him, but as his partner in a mutual, lifelong love story in which we always saved each other.
Then Scott died, and I couldn’t save his life – a thing I’ve had to forgive myself for, because I don’t have time to wallow when the kingdom still needs saving, the rent needs to be paid and this child still needs raising. I thought about that during my annual visit to Camp Widow, a weekend conference of bereaved partners where we try to make sense of the love and life we’ve lost and find the tools to start cobbling together a future that isn’t remotely what we wanted. We’ve all been broken, and are at varying stages of bleeding and scabbing over and slowly healing. These people are my heroes, particularly the ones just months into this awful journey, who somehow cut through the shock, put on shoes and came to a widow convention. That’s miraculous. What I’ve done, I think, is to honor the hero Scott was by making good on his belief in me and getting it done. I am my own hero.
This has extended to what I’m looking for in my next partner. I still want someone who is willing to fight for me. Not for my honor – I can do that. I’ve done that. What I need is a man who’ll fight for my budget by not freeloading, who’ll fight for my mental health by not gaslighting me or dismissing me when it makes him feel better about himself. I need a man who will fight for my career by standing by me and supporting me rather than belittling it because it’s not about him. I need a man who’s impressive enough as an adult, as a father to his own kids and a potential father to mine, to make me look up to him, and to trust him to have my back. I want a man who fights for me and my self-esteem by making me a priority in his life, not a placeholder to make him feel better until something better comes along.
In short, I need a man whose ego doesn’t require someone who needs saving, who sees me as a symbol of his own strength. I can’t do that for you, and you can’t do that for me. I want a partner, not a knight who sees me as a conquest. I fought with Scott, I’ve fought without him and now I need another partner who’ll toss me a sword (or give me space to kick, if we’re going back to our “Karate Kid” theme) and be willing to fight alongside me.
We’re saving each other. That’s the kind of glory I’d love.
I’ve been blogging for a while, either for my day job at the Palm Beach Post, or the Sweet Midlife With Lynne and Leslie, a blog I write with my sister that neither one of us really update enough. Sometimes, blogging seems easy- here’s what in my brain and hey everybody look at me.
And sometimes it seems dumb, like why should anyone who’s not me or the therapist I don’t currently have care about what’s in my brain? What makes me so special?
That’s something I’m still trying to figure out.
So here’s what I’m thinking about right now: I’m a 47-year-old woman, who 8 years ago married this cute guy she’d met in high school, resolved to make the next 50 years we would have together so good that we wouldn’t mind having missed the previous 20 together.
We got 5.
Rather than shake my tiny fist at God and dissolve into a puddle of regret and baked goods, I focused on things I can control, like writing, being a good mother and hopefully being healthy enough that I stay alive for the next 50 or so years. I’m gonna be hella old. But with the space-aged polymers and such, I’ll hopefully look good. Good-ish. With some filters and stuff.