THE light bulb moment came, ironically, the first time I had to change a spotlight in the bathroom. The ceilings are high so this had always been my husband’s job. But I thought, no need to make a production of this; I wouldn’t bother carting the step ladder upstairs.
I used a chair and, to steady myself, grabbed the top of the towel rail. This promptly came away in my hands, sending me flying backwards into the bath. I am lucky to be alive to tell the tale. All that was bruised was my ego as I realised how foolish I had been.
What also struck me was the fact that I was really and truly on my own — and no amount of self-pity was going to change that.
My husband, Mark, had died several months before. As devastating as it was, I was no longer his wife of 43 years. I had to find a new path, a new identity. I didn’t want just to be a pathetic widow who couldn’t change a lightbulb.
It had all happened so suddenly. A few months after retiring, while we were on holiday in Greece, Mark had suffered a fatal heart attack. He was a young 69. There had been no time to say goodbye.
At first I was numbed by the shock of losing the man who’d been by my side almost all my adult life. Then came all the bureaucracy involved in the death of a loved one abroad.
I soon realised I had to embrace change before it engulfed me; I had to move forward somehow.
As an author and historian, I’m fascinated by how women’s identities constantly shift and change, and by how they respond to the challenges life throws at them — from wartime deprivations to divorce or bereavement.
Now, suddenly, I was a widow — a word I have always hated. I was being forced not only to reconsider my identity but respond to a new way of life for which I was totally unprepared. I felt too young, in my mid-60s, to be defined by my lack of marital status, by the husband I no longer had. Men, I realised, are rarely defined simply as widowers.
Mark and I had met as teenagers at a party and married in 1975. Shortly afterwards, I took my new husband to a literary party, certain he’d be impressed with the people I knew.
Just ahead of us in the signing-in queue were ‘Mr and Mrs Jilly Cooper’. Think how revolutionary it was then for a successful man to submerge his own identity in his wife’s.
Mr Leo Cooper was a successful and handsome publisher, an alpha male; Jilly, his wife, a novelist.
It made me realise how rarely women got to have their own identity put first in a marriage.
‘I’ll do that when you have made it as a famous author,’ my husband promised. Aha, so I had to earn it, I realised. But that was OK. That’s how it was in those days.
I was a wife who was proud to be Mrs Mark Sebba, not the other way around. I may have secretly thought I was an independent young woman who had already made it as a successful journalist. I was, after all, a foreign correspondent at Reuters, the first woman they had taken on their graduate trainee scheme. I had lived alone in Italy for a year working in the Rome bureau. But nonetheless I had given up my maiden name and considered what my new husband was offering was generous.
I was happy to be a wife and, soon after, a mother to three children, now 44, 42 and 29. I never stopped working as a freelance journalist and biographer and never felt my identity as a mother was in any way self-denying. In fact, the reverse. I knew I was lucky to have all these wonderful experiences of life.
Throughout our marriage, Mark and I complemented each other in traditional ways which I didn’t question. He was a trained accountant so it made sense if he did the house admin while I did the kidstuff. If he unloaded the dishwasher, I thanked him. We thought we were modern because we never had a joint bank account. Mostly, it worked and we muddled through.
Many years later, in 2015, once I had become a bestselling author and my businessman husband had retired from his position as the hugely successful and popular chief executive of internet shopping hit Net-a-Porter, he was as good as his word and changed his email address to email@example.com.
He was, he happily told anyone who asked, prepared now to be in the service of his wife, my bag carrier when I travelled abroad to give lectures. It was a grand and very public gesture, a signal of how he intended to play out the next phase of our life together. I’d given up the big career to support him, now it was my turn.
But it was not to be. A few months after retiring, while on holiday in Crete, Mark died suddenly.
Although we were busy preparing the villa for four friends to come to stay, we decided we still had time for an early morning swim in the sea.
Immediately after a breakfast of Greek salad and coffee, I set to cooking — gazpacho, cheese pie and other local dishes I had recently mastered. Mark, meanwhile, attacked household chores, mostly preparing the beds. He always joked that he liked the unskilled tasks.
Having made a huge mess in the kitchen, I turned to Mark and asked if, while I set the table outside, he could do the washing-up.
If only I could unsay those words and tell him instead all the wonderful things he had meant to me over the years. He never replied and at first, I thought he was just hot. But by the time I had produced a glass of iced water he was slumped in a chair, breathing heavily. I knew something terrible had happened when I saw his hands had turned blue.
I must have made some frantic phone calls as first on the scene was the kindest of friends, a neighbour, then the owner of the local taverna, all of us trying to administer CPR, which I had never done before and had to be taught. Nothing seemed to make any difference.
After the longest 20 minutes of my life, an ambulance arrived. I saw from the solemn faces of the two paramedics as they set up their defibrillator, there was little hope.
At the hospital, a doctor came out. They had not been able to revive Mark and so, in a sterile room of a Greek hospital, I said a final, private goodbye. It was only then — as I realised how ridiculous I looked, still wearing a swimming costume with a damp kaftan over it — that I finally let go and wailed.
For a few days I lived on autopilot. When I finally started to think again, I was briefly cross with myself for not having talked more about death instead of always joking about who would go first. I decided looking backwards was not for me since whenever I started regretting something not said or done, I felt a lump in my throat.
Over time, as I was forced to reassess my identity, I wondered what lessons could be learnt from the women I had written about over the years. After all, I had spent 40 years writing books about the lives of the likes of Laura Ashley, Mother Teresa and Wallis Simpson.
Like many baby boomers, I might have another 30 years — we are, after all, the lucky generation to benefit from free education, cod liver oil and cheap mortgages — and I was determined to meet those years head on. But how?
Perhaps I could wholeheartedly embrace being a grandmother? I have six grandchildren aged from three to 14. I adore them all and every minute watching them develop is precious. But, while it’s an identity I love, and the simple joy of having them for an occasional sleepover or taking a ten-year-old to her music lesson and watching her progress is enormous, just being a grandmother isn’t enough.
I can’t wait for them to be old enough to be travel companions.
Then there was my work. I was in the middle of writing a biography about Ethel Rosenberg, an American wife and mother who was electrocuted in 1953, accused of being a spy even though there was no evidence against her beyond the perjury of her brother.
One of the most galling aspects of her case was to hear the misogyny of the judge who assumed Ethel was the mastermind simply because she was two-and-a-half years older than her husband Julius, who was a spy.
The judge accused her of being a bad mother for putting Communism before her children. (Why are famous men rarely judged according to how good or bad their fathering skills?)
On a practical level, the first change I made to my life after Mark’s death was a more determined effort to keep myself fit. Living alone, I dread not being able to look after myself independently and realise that haphazard attempts to walk 10,000 steps a day are not enough.
So I have started regular Pilates classes as well as weightlifting to strengthen an otherwise degenerative spine. Lifting kettle bells and a 30kg bar is the most empowering feeling imaginable and, although I have a long way to go, I love the sense of progress.
I’ve become good at mowing the lawn, too — once I bought a lightweight electric machine to replace the heavy petrol one my husband had used. I no longer have the professional stripes he was so proud of, but I can live without those.
And I’ve embarked on redecorating. I love entertaining informally in my kitchen but, since I am now cook, waiter and washer-upper, it has to be simpler.
So I have turned my basement kitchen into my favourite room with the help of green, patterned wallpaper and lots of new lights.
I’m not certain this would be to Mark’s taste but my children like it. I want my life to be light and bright and I hope this will help cure my very bad new habit of grazing during the day and force me to enjoy cooking even when it is only for me.
And I have agreed to go on cruises as a lecturer. I did a couple of cruises decades ago which I loved but Mark hated. Never again, he said. I am so excited to restart these and will be travelling in the footsteps of Byron in October, talking about Greece and Albania.
Four years on, I am not ignoring grief. Let no one be fooled, learning to live the solitary life after a long and happy marriage is not easy. The sense of loss is often still overwhelming and, if ever I listen to Mark’s voice on old videos, I instantly feel my eyes welling up.
Human beings are not made to be solitary creatures and my work, lucky though I am to have it at 70, is nothing if not solitary, researching in libraries or writing at a desk alone, compounded of course by Covid and lockdowns.
As for dating, I’ve certainly tried — and thank you to the many kind friends who have organised lovely introductions, please don’t give up on me yet! But a blind date is hard work, trying to explain who you are and what matters to you when you have lived this long.
Perhaps ‘Mr-Right-the-second-time-around’ is out there somewhere. I just haven’t met him yet.
As for my identity, I am not a merry widow, full-time granny or an isolated hermit buried in books. But as I think about what makes me joyful, what makes me wake up with a sense of self that I am comfortable with, I realise we all need multiple identities.
First and foremost, I am a human being; mother, sister, grandmother, writer, lecturer and, yes, widow, but probably not a weightlifter.
Just an average 70-year-old trying to keep fit. One who can now even change the odd lightbulb.
■ ETHEL ROSENBERG, by Anne Sebba, is out in paperback on June 23 (W&N, £9.99).