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In August 2011—almost 17 months after Lev’s death—I took my first big step in traveling alone, as a widow. I flew to London, then took the train to Edinburgh, another first for me. On my arrival, I walked into a pre-dinner reception at the hotel to meet 40 strangers who would be my travel companions on the Royal Scotsman for the next week.

Only four of us were new to the travel group—one couple, another recent widow and I. Naturally, the other widow and I often sat together on the train and on tour buses. She confessed to me that she had not worn makeup for a year and a half after her husband died. Without him, what was the point of looking attractive?

To a degree, I understand. When it’s difficult to muster up the energy just to get out of bed in the morning and when nobody notices when we have a new dress or look especially nice, “fixing up” is furthest from our minds. Like everything else in the grief process, each woman’s reaction is unique; and the last thing any of us needs or wants is someone else lecturing us on what we should do. What eventually worked for me may not work for you.

I did “fix up.” Facing multiple, difficult encounters with lawyers, bankers and accountants who did not give me time to grieve, I felt completely overwhelmed and inadequate. I was unequipped to step into Lev’s shoes as president of his small company. Instinctively, I decided to fake it—to look, dress and act the part—in hopes that business associates and professional advisors would see me as more qualified than I was.

We quit entertaining and going to big parties in the final years of Lev’s life. I resigned from almost all my board positions. I gained 10 pounds, and my gray roots were showing. My wardrobe was that of a frumpy, overweight, 60-something housewife. What I saw when I looked in the mirror did nothing to lift my spirits.

With several months of business meetings in Dallas, Chicago and New York, I invested in well-tailored pantsuits. I felt more confident in those meetings when I dressed the part. However, I let my hair go gray, and I gained another 10 pounds before I finally decided to do something about my size. It’s been a long journey, and today I feel little need for pantsuits. But what to wear?

Looking for Role Models

We have few guides on how to look good at this point in our lives, and far too few designers and retailers see us as a desirable market. Some of my peers want to look young above all. I fear looking silly—one of those old ladies with improbably colored hair, round blotches of bright rouge on her cheeks, eye makeup that misses the target, skirt too short, neckline too low or a face disfigured by too many “enhancements.” Besides, no matter what I might do to my face, my hands and neck give away the secrets of my age.

The media attention that surrounded Barbara Bush’s death reminded us of what aging with dignity and grace looks like. She was beautiful in her 90s—all those laugh lines, a glow that reflected her inner strength and goodness. She knew who she was, she was comfortable in her skin and her style of dressing reflected that self-knowledge. Scrolling through photos dating back to the 80s, I realized that she really didn’t change a lot in the last 30 years of her life.

I thought of my mother-in-law, who died 22 years ago at age 86. She too wrinkled young, and no one would have called her pretty, but she was a handsome woman whose presence dominated the room. She stood tall and erect, shoulders back until the end of her life. Dying from brain cancer, she still got up every morning and put on her girdle, Hanes hose and high-heeled pumps, as she had every day of her adult life. She never died her hair, but she was one of those rare, lucky women who developed white streaks at her temples and never turned completely gray. She wore simple, well-tailored dresses and suits or classic slacks with simple silk shirts. When it was time to dress up, oh, how she dressed!

She and Mrs. Bush did not resemble each other physically; but they both had a refined, classic style that we see too seldom today. At the end, the character beneath the skin shone through and made them beautiful.

While I hope for that radiance, I am not ready to look or dress “old.” I have enough pride to want to look good. I am sure some of my friends think that I would look younger if I colored my hair and spent more time on makeup and manicures, and they do not approve of sleeveless—even when it’s 100 degrees. We each need to find what makes us feel good about ourselves.

When I was a girl, it seemed everyone wanted to be either Debbie Reynolds or Marilyn Monroe; and I didn’t make the cut with either look. Somehow it never occurred to me that Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Lauren Bacall, even Katharine Hepburn from my mother’s generation might be more appropriate. I suppose they seemed too remote and untouchable.

Today I appreciate their timeless, classic style, though achieving that look isn’t easy. Cheap “fast fashion” made in third-world countries seldom works. At a time when the more skin you show, the better, it’s hard to find clothes that cover us adequately. Few of us fit into a size perfectly. Almost everything needs to be altered to fit well and look good. But look on the bright side. When we don’t buy stylish clothes, they don’t go out of style. We can invest in a few good, basic outfits and wear them forever.

I have never seen the point of lying about my age; and now, at 77, I am pretty darn proud—not to mention thankful—to have reached this point still on my feet. Birthdays are reason to celebrate. I am comfortable in my skin.

How about you? How do you define looking good at your stage in life?


Photo of my mother-in-law Helen Pruit Prichard Davis Matthews when she was about my age, perhaps a little older. She was married three times, widowed twice.

Ella’s memoir of her journey from grief, RECLAIMING JOY: A PRIMER FOR WIDOWS, will be released on September 14 by the Baylor University Press.