Lately, I’ve needed someone I could look to, someone who would be a role model of sorts for this unexpected place called widowhood. She didn’t occur to me initially because she was so much more than a widow. Her everyday existence transcended the title that became hers when she was in her early forties. Her name was Toots–Aunt Toots when we were younger, but just plain “Toots” when we reached maturity.
Toots was a very good friend of my parents, and after they divorced, my mother. My parents never knew her as part of a married couple, yet she was, having lost her husband of 20 years to leukemia a few years before they all met. They genuinely enjoyed Toots, so she soon found herself invited to everything from intimate holiday gatherings to larger family occasions. She was a part of their larger social circle, but she was much more than that at our house.
Toots was a diminutive woman of indeterminate age—her 4’10 height and coupled with a trimness that came from choosing cigarettes over snacking, made her look like a teen from a distance. Up close, her short pixie do, her freckles and bright blue eyes were joined by facial lines caused by sun, cigarettes, and laughing, none of which she would ever give up.
She was a mother of three older kids, who were in college when we met her. She had her family home and her social life, remnants of her marriage. But within a few years, it became unrealistic for her to hang on to the house with kids permanently moved away, so Toots moved to a ground floor apartment of a lovely Victorian home, right in the center of town.
The apartment fit her, it looked like a dollhouse and she looked like a little doll, Barbie’s spunky younger sister meets George Burns.
You Are What You Wear
Toots took a job at a local hospital to fill in some time and financial gaps. She worked in the radiology department as an admin and, at a time where “dress down” was transitioning into every day, Toots always looked a model of good taste. She would assiduously iron all her clothes, preferring the wrinkle-prone linen and cotton, to any “easy care” fabric
“Linen and pearls, a classic”, she would say to me when I’d admire an ensemble. She wore her good jewelry every day, shining gold bangles, only two, with a gold charm bracelet on her other arm. Her tasteful emerald wedding band was a stand-alone. She always had scarves pins and other accessories.
When my sister or I would comment about a particular outfit she would say, “You like this? Marshallese, five bucks–I think it was in the kid’s section.” My mother, very Irish in her thought process would say, “Toots, I hope you are not telling that to people at work. You look great, why give away your secrets.” She would respond that she would have fun envisioning all the doctors going home and asking their wives why they spent so much money on clothes, when clearly you could look good for so much less. The fact that she pronounced the off-price outlet with her version of a french accent, made us laugh every time.
Tea and Cocktails
Toots came to our house every day after work to have a cup of tea with my mother, who still had kids at home. She would sit propped up on the counter stool, little legs daintily crossed, her always polished nails stopping mid-conversation to retrieve a piece of loose tobacco that escaped from her unfiltered Philip Morris cigarette to lodge on her made-up lips. They would chat, and as each one of us came into the house, she would stop to have a conversation about what was going on in our lives. It never really occurred to us that Toots was alone, because she just seemed everywhere.
She liked her scotch neat, and on a Friday, Toots’ tea time was replaced with a mini-happy hour where she and my mother would have a cocktail before she went home.
I happened to be at her apartment one night, dropping something off at dinner time. I had interrupted her meal, which was laid out on a small table with a white Battenberg placemat in front of her. I’ll never forget the roast beef, potatoes and string beans all artfully arranged on her good china, with a small roll on a bread plate and a glass of wine. When I commented about her making such a nice meal for herself she said, “Why not? Just because I eat alone doesn’t mean I have to stop eating well.”
Sassy and Irreverent
Toots was irreverent with a sense of humor that was clean, but not always feminine. She had spent her early youth as part of a family vaudeville act, “Baby Pat and Marjorie Maher”, where she saw and probably heard more than a “Baby Pat” should have. She was a born show-woman, confident in a crowd, any crowd. She had no trouble going to a neighborhood waterfront bar, where the locals had known her most of her adult life, if she wanted a drink or conversation. Everyone liked her. Everyone looked out for her.
One night, someone who had come to the bar from the nearby marina asked the bartender if they sold “White Owl” cigars. Toots overhearing, and primed for a joke, chimed in, “They used to have them, but the feathers got caught in the air conditioner.” A corny joke, but one that provoked hilarity from the other barstoolers. The newcomer, clearly not amused, looked at the bartender and pointed a finger at Toots and said: “That little redhead needs disciplining!” A comment that drew such laughter from the crowd, that the guy threw down a bill for his beer and stomped out.
It’s Who You Know
Her sense of humor came in handy when it came time to take my road test for the second time. Toots volunteered to take me. My first test resulted in disqualification because my mother did not bring her glasses, and the inspector would not make an exception. The ride home left us both traumatized–I railed against my mother’s vanity and she railed against the inability of the inspector to make an exception. In those days, before the earth’s crust cooled, you waited three months for a new driving test appointment. For a teenager, that was a lifetime.
On my second attempt with Toots, we stopped for her cigs, and then drove to the test center. She was in teeny white jeans with a starched pink blouse that kept its shape despite the heat and humidity of a coastal Long Island morning in August.
“Don’t worry, it will be fine,” she said as we were slowly pulling up to the line. Within two minutes of arriving, Toots was out of the car leaving me holding, and dragging, on her lit cig.
“How ya doing Claud?”, her little head popped into the passenger side window, making me jump.
“Nervous as hell!! I hope I don’t get that mean guy from last time!”
The statement trailed off as I spotted the same inspector, clipboard in hand, coming towards the car. “Oh shit,” I said under my breath. Toots waved, and before long his grumpy countenance changed to a genuine smile as they both looked at me in the car.
“Take good care of my niece, Joe!” Giving me a big wink, she mouths behind his back, “It will be fine.”
And it was–a few turns, some parking and before long we were sliding back into line with Joe handing me my paper license receipt.
“Good seeing you Toots!”, Joe waved as she happily climbed into the passenger seat. She hated to drive, so my license meant I was the designated driver if we were together from that day forward.
“How do you know him?”, I asked her as I dropped the gear into drive.
“Well, you know my license is one of the first ones in the county–I think it actually starts with a bunch of zeros and a one.”
I laughed, but still never understood how she knew Joe. He was just another person in the crazy, tinkertoy-like creation of Toots’ social structure.
When my parents split, Toots was a true friend, and a class act. She was steadfast in her loyalty to my mother, but never spoke poorly of my father. She presented a calm voice of reason, truly believing that men’s mid-life crises were more like Tsunamis than an Apocalyptic phenomenon – devastating, but recoverable.
She was a friend to all, and a ray of sunshine for so many. She always looked great and never, ever felt sorry for herself. If she was lonely, she never showed it. She had a keen wit and even keener sense of observation. Today I look at her life and it’s lessons–how she lived on her own terms, she lived within her means, she dressed beautifully and tastefully, how her personal life remained her own, and how she was into self-care before it was a thing.
Toots eventually moved down to Florida to be with her children and grandchildren. We spoke to her, but didn’t see her as often as we would’ve liked. She passed away silently and suddenly, and the world was a lot less bright in the aftermath.
So, it is to Toots that I turn to as my Spirit Guide into this afterlife of widowhood, and in doing so, pay homage to the life that she led, and the people who were lucky enough to know and love her.
Claudia Lucey is a widowed mother of four, mostly adult children. Her “happy place” is the beach, where she spends every waking moment in the Summer. But spending time with her children is her greatest joy. Her philosophy is that laughter, even through tears, is the greatest emotional outlet. Nothing makes her happier than a good laugh, even at her own expense. She is a Director of Marketing for a construction company, yet she is a trained journalist who loves to write and photograph buildings of any size or shape.