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What do I know about Virginia? Not her birthday; not her favorite color. I know she loves the earth and growing things, Catholicism and KET. She can cook. She plays Vice City.

I know her friends call her Jinny, and she married John, and their children are Joan, John, James, Jeff, Jerry, Jeanne and Jay. Tenth of eleven, mother of seven. When she calls to one of them it’s a vocal slot machine.

My godmother, my grandmother: I don’t know how, through eighty years, she’s sustained her sense of wonder. I don’t know if, without hers, I’d have found my own.

Joe and Joan

He carried no life insurance; he scorned it as “betting on when you’re going to die.” He finally drew up a legal will, at her pleading, but it references a safety-deposit box at a bank that no longer exists.

Joe’s only system of organization was piles, and piles of piles. In the days following his death, she worked with a terrible dull urgency to bring order to it, to find what needed to be found. She’s still working. It must be done; it won’t be done soon.

What Joan has to do, now, is make sense of a life in pieces.


Hell, my mother has absently mentioned, is her husband’s visitation. It’s hours of standing when she wants to lie down, anywhere, forever. It’s a line out the door. It’s the endless upkeep of her bravest face while people, so many people, tell her exactly the same things.

Dante had Virgil when he walked into Hell for love. Orpheus failed to bring back Eurydice, and it cost him his mind.

How do you stay human when you have twice walked into Hell, guideless? How do you learn to be yourself again, when you have twice walked out, and your love stayed behind?


The only response to “I’m sorry” is “thank you,” because “I’m sorry” is such a flimsy response to death. So is a casserole, or a hug–do you really think that what she needs, right now, is another hug?

But of course such gifts are not really for the grieving.

This is the only appropriate gift for a widow: a minute of your life. A minute you would have spent breathing and loving, with your eyes open, warm. A minute from your long and many days, to bring your death that much closer, and let the two of them say goodbye.


Dishes. They’re a constant, an endless stream: unload, set, dirty, rinse, load again. When the washer breaks down it’s chaos.

The cabinet where most of them go is right above the counter, so her kids stand on it to put them away. When they’re in a good mood they make up mottoes for themselves, cheerfully, shamelessly.

It’s adorable and it’s heartbreaking. Even her oldest, standing on the counter, is still two feet short of the ceiling. Why are they so small? Why does she have to have a job? How can they be unable to reach the cabinets, when he’s gone?