Married when she was barely 19, Betty Auchard went straight from her parents' home to her husband's bed. She raised four children, returned to college, taught art in the public school system, and became a grandmother, a published artist, a retiree, and then a widow.
When she loses her husband of almost 49 years to cancer, widowhood forces Betty to find out what she can do on her own. She has a lot to learn, having never been single before. She was not freeway literate, nor had she ever used a computer. And she had never paid the bills by herself. Facing her new responsibilities, this septuagenarian makes all kinds of mistakes. These short, upbeat, inspiring stories tell us how this spunky woman got through widowhood-she decides to dance instead of sitting on the sidelines.
CommitmentNow.com: Dancing in My Nightgown: The Rhythms of Widowhood is a collection of stories about your experiences as a new widow and what you did to start over. Why did you decide to write this book?
Betty Auchard: I was a retired art teacher and didn’t know I was writing a book. Here’s how it started. After Denny died, my world felt like a dream. I was detached from reality, but I didn’t want to forget anything that was happening to me. I jabbered constantly to anyone who would listen. When no one was around I talked to paper. I wrote on whatever was handy; a paper napkin, the back of a used envelope, the bottom of the grocery list. I was a journalist preserving historical moments. Talking and writing kept me grounded. Now I feel that writing things down like a mad woman was my way of absorbing the reality of my loss. Writing affirmed that I was alive and that my thoughts were important. I scribbled on scraps and journaled on junk, then saved the little notes in safe places like my sock drawer or behind the sugar bowl. Later, I learned that writing was my tool for healing, but it also served to keep Denny around a little longer. The short notes made me cry and sometimes laugh: "I made apple butter for Denny today even though he’s not here. I hate apple butter, but he would be so pissed if I wasted good apples.08/31/98."
That was seven weeks after he died, and I had more to say that night, so I had to find some full sized paper. The next day, I shared what I had written with one of my daughters. As I read aloud, we laughed, cried, and then laughed again. She said, “Mom, this is a wonderful story.” Then I began seeing stories in all of my adventures and misadventures, and I shared my tales with anyone willing to read them. Within the next six months, I had a fantasy that my widow stories could be in a book someday, but getting published was never what drove me to keep writing. I was writing to stay afloat.
A year later, I followed someone’s advice and submitted a few stories for publication, and over the next few years, my true tales ended up in five anthologies. I considered that I might be writing stories for a whole book, and I was right. Dancing in My Nightgown: The Rhythms of Widowhood represents my first six years of widowhood. I’m even the dancer on the cover of the book.
CommitmentNow.com: You married at the age of nineteen and lost your husband forty-nine years later. What were some of the most difficult things you had to get used to?
Betty: Well, first of all, we had an old-fashioned marriage where Denny did all the guy things and I did all the girl things. I did not know how to use a computer and was not freeway literate. I didn’t know how to put gas in my car, do the taxes, or pay bills on time. Those were his jobs that I had to learn the hard way: by making really terrible mistakes. I imagined Denny slapping his forehead and saying, “What the heck is she doing?” If I forgot to put the garbage out on Thursday night, I was despondent for a week. I had to write all of my tasks on the calendar, and then forgot to read the calendar. I never knew what day it was. The first year of widowhood, while grieving and learning how to manage on my own, was the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life. Writing obsessed me, so I put it all down, the good and the not-so-good, no matter how dumb it made me look. I knew I couldn’t possibly be alone in my ignorance, and there must be others out there like me. And there are. After my presentations, countless women have whispered to me, “Betty, I still don’t know how to put gas in my own car. My husband does that for me.” But most wives don’t share those confessions with a room full of people. I do because it makes women aware of what we need to learn if we end up alone. Statistics show that the majority of husbands die first, so before we have another big earthquake, find out where to turn off the gas and water.
CommitmentNow.com: What were some of the first steps you took to start your life over?
Betty: Being in a grief support group helped me immensely. Next, I got rid of our king-sized bed and replaced it with a queen-sized one. I felt cozier. Then, I joined a health club. Denny felt that health clubs were for yuppies, and taking brisk walks in our own neighborhood was more cost effective. But, the local club was offering a senior discount that I couldn’t ignore. I bought a modest bathing suit, sun screen lotion, and signed up for a water aerobics class. It was a good decision. Jumping into the pool three times a week was like immersing my chubby self into supernatural water because it worked some powerful magic on my brain and my body. My energy was restored. My skin grew golden, my waist returned, and my boobs really firmed up. I was a jock grandma who felt like a million bucks. What blindsided me was that after my workouts I felt like a hottie.
CommitmentNow.com: What surprised you about your first year of widowhood?
Betty: Just about everything surprised me. It was the most life-altering experience I’ve ever had. In the beginning the emotional highs and lows were exhausting and never in a smooth straight line. Gradually the “grief attacks” became less frequent and not as intense as they once were. Whenever I relapsed into gloom I would read things I had written in the first weeks after Denny died, and I could see how far I had come. Reading those sad notes made me aware that I was inching forward into a new life. It made me even more aware that nothing would ever be the same again, and my future could be anything I wanted it to be if I kept working at it. I was beginning to feel happy more often.
But…there is nothing simple about grief recovery. I felt guilty when I enjoyed myself. In spite of that I gave myself permission to laugh as much or more than I cried. I kept score so that my laughing points could become higher than my crying points without guilt. I was surprised when I had to admit that wasn’t just surviving, I was thriving. But none of this happened overnight. The first year was the hardest. Between years two and three, I knew I was moving on even though at a snail’s pace.
CommitmentNow.com: What role did your children and grandchildren play in your life as you grieved and began to start over?
Betty: My four children and older grandchildren grew closer to me in new ways such as helping with house tasks, financial decisions, and answering my computer questions while checking on my welfare. They were always looking in on me as though I was now the child and they were the parents. At that time, it was okay. However, three years later, I finally had to remind them that I did NOT need permission to do what I wanted: to sign up for online dating. But in those early days, we reminisced about Denny a lot and shared all kinds of funny stories about him. It was obvious that he was still with us. Then, two years after Denny died, one of my high school granddaughters was horrified after hearing that I had a crush on my carpet salesman. She was so upset that she discussed my “transgression” with her trusted school counselor. Lucky me: her counselor explained that her own widowed father was finally smiling again because he had met a nice lady friend. This helped my 16-year-old granddaughter to get off my back. It’s a weird feeling to be supervised by a teenager. But it reminded me of how upset I was as a young mother when my own divorced mom started dating.
CommitmentNow.com: When did you realize that there might be room for another love in your life?
Betty: That memory is unforgettable. Two years after Denny died, I decided to go against his wishes and tear out our 32-year-old gold shag carpet and allow the oak floors to show. While shopping for area rugs, I became smitten with my rug salesman. He made me laugh and feel more alive than I had felt in a long time. I found all kinds of reasons to seek his advice frequently and I even started wearing makeup again and respectable shorts that showed off my tan, jock legs. I got my first pedicure so my feet would look good when I stepped on those little rug samples to test the density. Then I bought a toe ring for my left foot in case he hadn’t noticed that I was “with it.” I was a born-again teen-ager with a crush. For a long time I upgraded everything I needed if it was sold in his store including vinyl floors in three bathrooms and new brass floor vents in every room. When I ran out of things to replace, I considered carpeting the garage. I stalked the carpet man for a whole year, running up my credit card balance while having a wonderful time. But the only things that caught his attention were my bare floors. That was okay, because he opened my heart. What a surprise he was. He has since read all of the stories I wrote about him, and he said, “Betty, I feel like a celebrity.” Well, by now, he is a celebrity. People still ask about the Carpet Man, and I’m pleased to tell them that even though we’ve never even met for coffee together, we are still friends.
CommitmentNow.com: At one point you stated you were becoming a new woman. What did that mean?
Betty: It meant a variety of things. For instance, I was making big decisions on my own that my husband would not have agreed with, and I felt no guilt. I paid attention to my appearance when I used to let myself go scruffy. I cared about my health and started taking responsibility for my own future. I was more adventurous and not fearful anymore. In the past I used to dream about having a fit body, and then I knew that I could have one if I wanted it. I set a few goals for myself, though not a long list because I usually make it up as I go along. But I was keenly aware of being the only one in charge of my life, and my life could be whatever I wanted it to be. I knew I was changing a lot, and it was exciting.
CommitmentNow.com: What is your life like now?
Betty: When I say with honesty that I am the most content I’ve ever been does not mean that my old life was less than this one. It was just different. My new life has forced me to become self-sufficient, to develop my talents for story-telling and my love of “public speaking,” which I would rather think of as having a good conversation with a large group. I’ve rediscovered my love affair with all kinds of audiences. I’m a teacher at heart so I come alive when I’m the presenter. It’s magical to exchange energy with a receptive audience. We feed each other. I’ll always be a mother and grandmother, but I’m a very different Betty than I used to be. As a wife, I deferred to my wise and cautious husband because he was the head of the house. I’m not so cautious as he, but I’m in charge now. I’m still single by choice and I like my privacy, but I have a weakness for checking out smiley gray-haired men who walk with purpose. I’m social and my life is good.
CommitmentNow.com: What advice do you have for new widows?
Betty: Newly widowed people have their work cut out for them. I’ve learned a lot from my own experience, but even more from professionals because I assist in grief recovery workshops. In this condensed list are a few worthwhile suggestions:
• Embrace the pain. It will NOT kill you. No one ever died from crying.
• Accept the loss. Don’t set a place at the table for your dead partner.
• For a year, learn to live without the partner in the home you shared.
• Reinvest emotional energy in something new, especially if it helps others.
( look up Worden’s Four Tasks of Grief on google.com)
These last two suggestions are my own.
• Avoid feeling guilty regarding unresolved issues.
• Avoid putting your deceased partner on a pedestal. Instead, and in good spirit, accept your partner’s past flaws and shining qualities equally. You would want the same had you died first.
Betty Auchard was a retired art teacher when her husband, Denny, died. For her, writing became a way to heal, eventually taking on a life of its own. Her stories have been published in the 'Chocolate for a Woman's Soul' series, the San Jose Mercury News and other periodicals. Visit Betty at www.dancinginmynightgown.com.
To purchase Dancing in My Nightgown: The Rythms of Widowhood, click here.