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!
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.
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.
And that’s not funny.
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.