It all started when my husband (very much alive) called me a coward. And a wuss, and a sniveling good girl who still clung to her high school newspaper editor roots. You like me, you really like me seemed to be the enduring theme of my years of essay, feature and short story writing. I had become a skilled practitioner of the 750 word essay, sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant, but always safe. I plumbed the first few inches, but not the depths of the human psyche. Still, those few inches yielded some good writing – well over three-hundred published essays; work that I am proud of.
A funny thing happened along the way though. As I kept writing short fiction, trying like hell to master that form, trying to learn from the true masters – Alice Munro, Carol Shields, John Updike, Richard Ford, Roxana Robinson – I noticed a recurring theme in my work. There were an awful lot of dead husbands in my stories. Actually it was my husband who noticed, perhaps more than a little nervously. Be afraid, be very afraid…
Oh, sweetie, I’d say, after he pointed out the particularly nasty way in which Topher meets his demise in my story Famous Chinese Pandas. It’s just a story!
But what about Mr. Tucker in The Pink and White Terraces of New Zealand?
Don’t you think he rather deserved to die? I asked. Well, maybe, my husband replied, eyeing the wooden block of steak knives with renewed interest, like he’d never noticed them before.
I balked at putting together a story collection called Dead Husbands. After all, in this world of political correctness, what if a man published a story collection called Dead Wives? Wouldn’t feminists book themselves on the television talk shows and denounce such a collection of stories as misogynistic at best, to say nothing of being in poor taste. But still… It is after all, fiction.
The fact is, more husbands die before their wives do. Many of these stories of dead husbands are about wives who are left alone and have to learn how to live without their beloved or not so beloved spouse. Only the death of a child can be seen as a more shattering emotional blow in a woman’s life. Our relationships with men, with our husbands, is an enduring theme, one all married women share, whether we are eighty, fifty, or new brides of twenty-two. We have cleaved ourselves to another – to a complete stranger, a mysterious creature whom we will never really know, although we’ll do our damnedest to do so, often with them fighting it all the way.
We women have our own language when it comes to talking about our husbands. It is a language which often relies on a sort of shorthand that has been perfected and passed along in family gatherings and in the daily lives of the nuclear family, among neighbor women meeting over morning coffee, over underlying comments made in a book club, over drinks at a girls’ night out. Talk of children is always one thing; talk of husbands is always another thing altogether.
Let me say here that I hope my husband and all other husbands live long, healthy, happy lives. Well, most other husbands… The good ones, anyway.