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Merry Widows

The other day my recently widowed mother went to a party at which six of the seven guests had also lost their husbands. I think she found it a little odd—another kind of hen party after a life of being in a couple for so long. However, my mother seemed to enjoy it, and it was virtually the first thing she told me about when I went to visit her at the end of February.

By my mother’s account, the conversation at the party was lively and ranged over a number of topics—including, naturally, the women’s children and their deeds and misdeeds. When the time came to my mother, she told them about my brother and then mentioned I lived in New York. This generated some discussion on how interesting and fun the Big Apple was to visit. She then told them I was a vegan.

Now, a few years ago, I’m sure that the “v” word would have brought the discussion to a stop. Looks would have been exchanged, eyebrows would have been raised, and questions would have been asked: “What’s a vegan?” “What does he eat?” “Does he get enough protein?” “What do you cook him?” “Is he healthy?” “Don’t you worry about him?” And so on and so on.

However, according to my mother, nobody seemed to bat an eyelash. They all apparently knew what a vegan was, to their satisfaction at least, and nobody was particularly concerned about my welfare and whether I was in imminent danger of dying of malnutrition or starvation. (My mother usually tells people without their asking that I seem to be in robust good health.) In fact, according to my mother, the conversation moved quite quickly onto veal, and the consumption of it. Now, while my mother is somewhat vague as to the nature of that conversation, I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one among the widows was aware of the cruelty involved in raising veal calves and was expressing it to the group.

For me, my mother’s account of this little gathering of middle-class, thoroughly conservative, white Englishwomen in their late fifties to mid sixties, was something of a revelation. Clearly, not only has veganism entered their consciousness and understanding as a concept, but the group knows that it’s not a religious cult or something akin to bulimia or anorexia nervosa. Some of them also saw that veganism had something to do with how we treat animals, and that that treatment was problematic, and, here’s the kicker, should and could be talked about.

On the other hand, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. In my experience, it is women who are more open to new ideas, who can talk about them more freely, and who are willing to be changed by friends and acquaintances. My mother has adopted a low-fat diet. She has stopped drinking the small amount of alcohol that she used to drink; she is monitoring her cholesterol intake and trying to eat more whole foods. My aunt, I learned the other day, has taken up yoga, and told me, with some pride, that she is “virtually a vegetarian.” She has been made aware of the issue of food by my cousin’s heroic efforts to lose weight and re-examine her attitudes toward food. My father’s sister, all of eighty years old, has been an animal lover all her life and she and her extraordinary eighty-six-year-old husband recently adopted an older dog from the pound (where they have always got their dogs) so they can enjoy each other’s company for another bunch of years, and perhaps leave this earth at roughly the same time. Both my uncle and aunt now eat a mainly low-fat, mainly vegetarian diet.

Apart from my uncle, however, the men quite simply are dying: from too much alcohol, too little exercise, and from too much fatty, unhealthy food. Sure, the diseases that kill them are varied, and men on average do die several years earlier than women, so I can’t promise that I’m going to waltz into a merry old age like the widows. But my feeling is that what’s really killing the men is of a lack of curiosity, an unwillingness to take up a hobby in retirement, and a stubborn refusal to change, ask questions, find out something new and try it out. Their women don’t seem to be worried about the new or alien, and even when they are, they have other women to tell them that it’s OK to be worried, but they have friends around who’ll support them and make the transition easier.

My mother, who for years languished under the assumption that she was incapable of working anything technological, is now a master of the VCR and is interested in getting a computer and a wireless connection and surfing the Web. She’s still a little worried that she’ll be blinded by science, but I’ve told her that she’s smart enough to deal with it, and her technology-comfortable sister has offered her unstinting support. She seemed intrigued by yoga when my aunt told her about it, and was going to look into it. And knowing her, she’ll probably tell the other widows about it.

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