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A widow honors her old life, amid her new one

An inheritance 16 years after her first husband’s death brings revived memories

Shutterstock/Preto Perola

Last week Marjon, one of my late husband Willem’s three tall sisters, e-mailed me from Holland to inform me that I have inherited some euros. Willem’s father’s second wife has died, and there is money, nothing grand, in the estate that was allocated to his father’s grown children. I am legally Willem’s heir. Never mind that he died 16 years ago, which feels like yesterday but was almost the last century. Nor does it matter that I have since married a journalist who grew up in Atlanta, who lost his wonderful first wife far too young and understands everything. To get this gift, all that was needed was proof that I was married to Willem at one time. And that he is no longer living.

I wandered around my apartment, opening my jewelry box and trying on my old wedding ring, which in all honesty doesn’t fit anymore, and looked at an old photo album full of pictures not taken on a telephone, including our wedding at city hall. There were Willem in his wrinkled white suit and sneakers and me in my little white dress, with a crooked wreath of flowers in my hair. There was the empty glass baby food jar with the ingredients written in Polish from when we adopted our son in Lithuania. I picked up the dented Ping-Pong ball from the first summer we were married and set up the Ping-Pong table outside our Dutch cottage and played during those endless sunshine nights.


Finally, in the paper folder marked WILLEM, I found our marriage license and the death certificate, which I carried in my purse for one dazed year after he died, when it seemed I needed to present it every other day. I was even required to show it at the airport leaving the United States with our 5-year-old son, as evidence that I was not kidnapping our child.

When Willem died, in 2000, he had just made the very modern move to electronic mail. After his death, his computer was full of guttural Dutch words I could not understand. I would not step into the cyber world until a year later. I have a shoe box of carefully handwritten condolence cards, including the ones from Holland with the formal black trim around the envelopes, and another box of museum postcards Willem wrote me every single day from Amsterdam when we were apart for three months.


One night, soon after I met Willem, our friend James sat in our kitchen and quietly confided that he was HIV positive and did not have long to live. But in fact, because of modern medicine, James is alive and well, and we are now Facebook friends. Willem was a scholar of the 17th century. The notion of “friending” someone would have baffled him, and the term “live streaming” would have caused him alarm.

I keep expecting to go down to the docks and wait for a clipper ship with a parchment envelope full of colorful guilders, rather than punching in my ID and password to see if the euros have cleared. When they have, I do not know how I will feel, but I now know what I will do. I will go to the store and find a beautiful card and write as neatly as I can a thank you note to Marjon. I will print out up-to-date pictures from my phone of my husband, my 20-year-old son, and my stepsons, frame them, and hang them above my desk. I will call James on the telephone and make a plan to see him without texting or e-mailing him beforehand. I will buy a plane ticket to visit Holland, where I have not had the courage to go in 16 years, and I will bring Marjon an armful of tulips.


Patty Dann’s new book is The Butterfly Hours: Transforming Memories Into Memoir. Send comments to

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