I have always loved beautiful things—who doesn’t?—but beauty was not essential to my happiness until I was widowed. Perhaps because of the drudgery involved in settling the estate and learning Lev’s business after his death, I desperately needed to be in light-filled, tranquil, soothing space to fill the emptiness and mitigate my pain.
I describe those early months of grief in Reclaiming Joy:
There was the empty chair opposite mine in the library, where we drank coffee and read the newspaper together each morning and watched the news before dinner every evening. There was the empty chair across from me in the breakfast room; another, at the head of the long dining room table. There was the big armchair in the living room, his chair since 1971. There was the empty bed where he died.
Some turn those empty places into shrines, memorials to their spouses. That is not my nature. My mind overflowed with memories, and sometimes I needed to escape them. Within a few months, I bought a pair of chairs for the library and claimed for myself the space his chair had occupied. In the breakfast room, I did a ninety-degree turn, to face out the French doors to a flower-filled patio instead of across the table to the empty chair….
Lev’s bedroom because my new office and his closet, my file room. (You saw a photo of the file room in last week’s blog, Men: Don’t Do This to Your Wives.) French doors opened to a tiny porch, where I added attractive outdoor furniture, a small bronze statue, and new landscaping…. When I grew weary of a task, I could lift my eyes from the paperwork or the computer screen and soak in the beautiful, quiet space of the office and the green space beyond it, feeling a sense of accomplishment that I did what had to be done. While I did not choose and do not want this role, I gradually grew accustomed to it. I obtained some balance in my life, finding time again for the people and the activities that had always brought me pleasure. I found a degree of contentment. (18–20)
Later I wrote:
I needed light. For months I left the lights burning throughout the house day and night, until at last my soaring electric bills brought me back to reality. Dark places, dark books and movies, people with dark moods and thoughts depressed me and kept me awake at night. I wanted to be surrounded by beauty and serenity. Too much color and too much clutter set my nerves on edge. I sought books, movies, and plays that made me laugh and that had happy endings. The fine arts—both visual and performing—became a major source of pleasure and provided new opportunities for socializing. (180)
Aesthetics also mattered when I traveled: I desired a serene room with a good view—mountains, water, forests or flowers. It was through my travels that I eventually reclaimed joy. “As I walked the cobblestone streets of Nantucket, I finally found joy that lasted more than a moment. I discovered a serene, tranquil beauty and peace that caused my spirit to soar and led me to reevaluate and ultimately repurpose my life.” (85–86)
Even today, what I see outside my windows as I go about my work relieves the tedium and lifts my spirits. The English poet John Keats was right: A thing of beauty is a joy forever.
That’s why I have spent increasing amounts of time in my garden. And it’s why, in a few short weeks, I will be back on Nantucket, carrying my iPhone on my daily walks to snap photos of the window boxes and gardens and ever-changing seascape that bring me so much joy each summer.
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You might enjoy reading The Healing, by Oliver Sacks, neurologist and author, who died in 2015. He wrote, “As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible.”
Today’s blog was adapted from Reclaiming Joy: A Primer for Widows, released by1845 Books, an imprint of the Baylor University Press, in 2018.
Ella will be a presenting author at the prestigious Nantucket Book Festival this summer, speaking at 3 p.m., Thursday, June 13, at the First Congregational Church. She will sign books afterwards at a reception at the church’s fellowship hall.
Photos, from the top: The garden from the living room window; views from the breakfast table, office and kitchen sink. When Lev and Ella downsized in 2003, they wanted to blur the lines between indoor and outdoor space—no grass, no boring views; instead, beauty from every window and French door.