Montgomery Widows: A Struggle to Survive

By Roxie Hughes

Vol. 1, No. 5, 1979, pp. 15-17

Florence, who prefers not to be otherwise identified, lives in the same small white house east of downtown Montgomery where she was born some 90 years ago. She lived alone until she became ill recently and now shares her home with a neighbor who takes care of her. Her main concern, she says, is getting plumbing in her neighborhood so that she can have an indoor toilet.

A 74-year-old retired home economist who prefers to be called Evelyn lives in the Cloverdale section of Montgomery, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. Along with her part-time maid, Evelyn lives with Sammy Davis and Jet - her cats. She spends much of her time collecting American pattern glassware and studying the stock market.

A third woman, Pearl, who describes herself as "once a woman of means," rents a modest house bordering Highway 85 for $50 a month. Pearl, 88, said she prefers living alone to living in a nursing home after having had one "unpleasant" experience at one nursing home. But she refuses to talk about it. She used to read romance novels until her eyes grew weak, she said.

These three women are members of a large and quickly growing segment of the Montgomery County population - elderly widows. Census figures from 1960 show that widows in Alabama, 14 years and older, numbered more than 153,350. By 1970, that number had grown to 184,430.

Although the widows represent a variety of social, economic and educational backgrounds, as well as a range of lifestyles, they share many of the same problems that often come with old age and widowhood. They talk about making the adjustment, losing their spouses and how they tried filling the void created by that loss. They fear increasing crime in the city and wonder what new burden inflation will place on their limited incomes. Some say they have problems maintaining their homes, others face declining health and most value their dwindling number of old friends. Almost all say the adjustment to losing their spouses was hard at first.

"After you become a widow, you have to change your lifestyle completely," said Evelyn, who was widowed eight years ago. "We live in an even-numbered society and widows just don't fit in. You need four, eight or 12 to play bridge," she said. "Although friends will tell you that their friendship will last until the end of the world, you wind up having to find other widows to hobnob with."

Florence said she had to make several changes in her life when her husband died nearly 62 years ago. She and her husband were evangelists and spent years pastoring as a team African Methodist Episcopalian churches in Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, Ohio, and Brantford, Ontario, Canada. They also traveled to Algeria as missionaries, she said.

She returned to Montgomery after her husband died and shortly thereafter she became ill. She no longer pastors


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church although she always carries her preaching license, now yellowed and cracked.

"I never know when I'm going to be called on to preach," she said.

Pearl said after her husband died 22 years ago, she went hack to being a private nurse, and retired only three years ago.

"After we got married, he wouldn't let me work, but when he died I nearly lost everything. I was sick for two years afterward and during a seven-year period I had to bury my sister, a brother, a sister-in-law and a niece," she said.

"I was broken down and I haven't had anything since."

Many of the widows said inflation affects their retirement benefits in varying amounts. They were forced to give up something, most said.

Nearly 35 percent of the elderly people in Alabama rely on social security as their sole means of income, according to census figures. The figures also indicate that close to 44 percent of the people over 65 in the state are living below the poverty level.

Anne Brett, a 69-year-old retired zoology college professor said she had to give up her car after her husband's death.

"Although I carefully budget my money so that it tides me through the month, I just couldn't own my car," she said.

"So I take a bus or my son or some friend drives me from place to place."

Florence, who receives about $200 monthly in social security benefits, said that she is having no problems feeding herself but is unable to make some necessary repairs on her home.

"That's just not enough money to do what needs to be done to my house," she said. "My door needs to be fixed and some of the boards on my house are falling off." She has nailed shut half of the rooms in her house because "there's not much I can do about those rooms that are falling in." But she compensates for her surroundings with potted plants which line her walls and cover every table and counter top.

Pearl said her $207 social security check covers her rent, utilities and medicine bills. She also pays a 14-year-old girl from the community to clean up and cook for her in the afternoons. "I don't know how I budget it, but I try to buy food with whatever's left over," she said.

Valla Ferguson, an 88-year-old retired nurse who is partially blind said she could hardly make ends meet with her social security check.

"My medicine bill is so high that I had to give up buying meat and milk," she said. "I've gotten so thin that my doctor said if I got any thinner, he wouldn't have anyone to bill."

Valla said she cooks one meal a day and is hoping to start getting two free meals from a state agency.

Crime is considered a serious problem among many of the widows. Evelyn said her neighborhood is made up almost entirely of widows and "when dark comes, we don't


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dare go out," she said. "During the day we travel in twos and we don't carry pocketbooks."

Pearl said she feels "reasonably safe" in her neighborhood although she has had her pocketbook snatched once and one of her social security checks taken from her mailbox.

Since she is bedridden, she leaves the key to her front door on her porch so that neighbors can check on her during the day. "But I take that key in at night, latch my door and I have started locking my mailbox," she added.

Dorothy Gibbs, a retired high school counselor, said, "The crime rate doesn't really frighten me, but I usually have a companion with me wherever I go and am very careful."

Many of the widows said loneliness is hardly avoidable with the losses.

Ophelia Sippial, 80, an insurance company employee, said she leads a quiet life but is not lonely.

Ophelia, a widow for 11 years, said, "1 love getting up in the morning to watch TV news and my favorite talk shows and game shows."

"Sometimes I have dinner with one of the neighbors in the apartment and we take turns cooking for each other."

Dorothy Gibbs said she escapes loneliness through teaching piano lessons to children and through doing volunteer work at the Fairview Medical Center and the Crippled Child and Adult Association. She is also active with the League of Women Voters and church organizations.

"I guess I'm used to being independent because when my husband was alive he worked in another town and came home on the weekends." However, she added that she no longer attends activities that "require couples" since her husband's death.

Anne Brett, widowed for 28 years, does tridimensional decoupage, an art form that includes piling and gluing layers of paper to get a raised effect.

She also cooks for senior citizens each month through a free meal program at her church and teaches Sunday school.

Still there are others like Pearl and Florence who are immobilized by illness and spend much of their time at home.

"I spend my days lying here on my couch, and only walk back and forth to the bathroom and kitchen," Pearl said.

"It's hard for me to see my television, but I sometimes listen to my radio."

Florence, who only goes out when she attends church on Sundays, said, "I don't get lonely because I don't have time to think about getting lonely. There's too much else for me to think and worry about."

Roxie Hughes is a staff writer for the Alabama Journal in Montgomery.