BLACK VOICES

What It's Like To Be A Black Widow

Leslie Gray Streeter's memoir about grief is funny, sad and real. When a critic said it wasn’t “top shelf,” she said, "I was like, 'I’m the mid-price vodka of memoirs.'"
Leslie Gray Streeter
Leslie Gray Streeter

This article is the third in a series called “How to Human,” interviews with memoirists that explore how we tackle life’s alarms, marvels and bombshells. Previously: Ada Calhoun and Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

 

It took Leslie Gray Streeter, a columnist for The Palm Beach Post, almost four decades to find true love. He wasn’t what she was expecting ― she is Black and Baptist, and Scott was white and Jewish ― but they were made for each other. Then, only a few years later, while they were in the process of adopting their son, Brooks, Scott unexpectedly died of a heart attack at the age of 44. 

So starts what should be a tragic story about young widowhood, but “Black Widow: A Sad-Funny Journey Through Grief for People Who Normally Avoid Books With Words Like “Journey” in the Title” is anything but tragic. It is witty and laugh-out-loud funny but ultimately a love letter to her husband, and a book her son can read when he grows up and wants to know his father better. 

HuffPost spoke to Streeter earlier this month via a Google Hangout. She spoke about her memoir and what it was like to write about the days and months after her life changed forever. 

Let’s talk about humor. Your story is so sad, and yet it’s the funniest memoir I’ve ever read. Could you speak to that?

I’m a feature writer, so I’ve always written sad stories, but my real gift, I think if I have one, is being funny. When I was writing about what happened, it just flowed. It just filtered who I am and what was happening through humor, because it’s how I dealt in real time. There were obviously things that were not funny at all, but when I started to write it just came out that way. I thought, “Do I try to be Joan Didion?” But I am not Joan Didion. I wish I was, but I’m not. 

One of the reasons I wrote this book is because people still are icky and weird about grief. They expect grief to be poignant, but that has nothing to do with me, or how most people that I know deal with things. When people say, “It’s a funny book about grief,” and they go, “Oh, no. It’s Bob Hope. It’s slapstick, slipping on a banana peel and falling into a casket.” It’s not that at all. It’s just living your life in a way that you usually live it, and sometimes things like eating chips in a graveyard happens, and it’s funny. Saying, “Can we go to Key West now to go drinking and not go to this funeral?” because that’s how you feel. 

We all process things differently, and if someone writes about how weird things are and how funny the weirdness is, it gives you permission to acknowledge that in your grieving and your pain and to say, “I’m not disrespecting my husband, my mother, my dad or my partner for having some joy, even in the middle of this awful thing.”  

When my grandmother died, we had a shockingly good time at her funeral, not because we were happy, but standing among our other relatives’ headstones, well, it felt like a reunion. People were telling funny stories about one dead aunt and another. Anyway, all the laughing led to the rabbi admonishing us, but the reality is I think my grandma would have loved it. More than anything, she adored bringing the family together.  

Yes. Yes. I think that my husband was not a super-serious person. He could be serious about things that we needed to be serious about. There’s no one-size-fits-all memoir or anything. When [a critic] wrote that my memoir wasn’t “top shelf,” I was like, “I’m the mid-price vodka of memoirs. I’m happy to be the Tito’s Vodka and Courtyard by Marriott memoir. I’m fine with it. It’s cool.”

I think it means more people will read it.

I hope so. I really hope so. Someone asked me the other day, “Who is this for?” I was like, “People.” It’s for people. I think it’s because I’m writing as a Black person and being honest about that experience, filtering a very common experience like grief through a prism that’s not always seen. I think it’s me and Tembi Locke, who wrote “From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home.” We’re like your Black widows. She’s really wonderful and completely different. Have you read the book?

I have not.

She’s wonderful. Completely different book. Hers is very much a grief memoir, a travel log, a food thing and everything. She married a guy who was Italian who died, and they went back to Italy so her daughter could get to know his family and so she could reconnect where they met. 

What other grief memoirs are there? 

There are not a lot of them out there. But there was “The Year of Magical Thinking,” by Joan Didion, Sheryl Sandberg’s “Option B” and Rob Sheffield’s, who is a friend of mine, “Love Is a Mixtape.”

At the time that I was researching my book, before the time these books came out, there were not really any by Black people. I was like, I’m just going to write my story and hope that people connect to it and that people appreciate a story told from a perspective that is maybe close to theirs or that will say, ‘It’s not like my experience, and I respect it because it’s not like mine. I’d like to know more about someone else’s experience.’”

I noticed the beginning of the book is written almost in real time. I felt like I was really present with you, and I wondered how soon after your husband had died did you start writing your thoughts and your feelings?

A month or two. Maybe two months?

What was that like?

I literally had to get it off my chest. The day that he died, I was in my kitchen with my friend Scott Eyman, who used to be the books editor at The Palm Beach Post, where I work, and he is a Hollywood historian. He has written many, many books. I used to always say, “Oh, I’m going to write this idea. I’ve got a great idea for fiction,” and I would give him the first two chapters.

I’d never do anything with it, and he would say to me, “You’re going to finish the book that you have to finish.” 

Scott had died maybe eight or 10 hours earlier, and Scott Eyman was in my kitchen. I said, “I think this is my book.”

He said, “I think it is. I’m sorry to say, but I think it is, too.”

I feel like you’re a wizard with some of the writing that you do because you approach sensitive subjects in a way that I don’t see coming. Case in point, you write about saving yourself for marriage. That’s a subject that’s personal, and I wondered if you questioned whether or not to include it or other subjects like that within the memoir?

I kind of knew I had to. Like I said before, I figured if I was going to write a memoir, it had to be setting those balls out. I would have to do it, and that was a part of my story. 

To me, like I said in the book, it was a beautiful thing, because it says a lot about Scott’s value system. He loved me enough to wait, which I thought was really brave. I knew when I told that story, I had to write that. I thought about, “How do I write that?” so I just wrote it. 

I was like, “I will just write in context of my life. It won’t be like a big star section like, ‘Here I am, a virgin.’” It was just, “This is part of our story,” and I just wrote it like I was telling it to a friend. I went back and said, “Does that say what I want it to say?” and it did. I was like, “OK, that’s what I wanted to say about it.”

Yeah. You don’t even use the word “virgin,” I think.

Nope.

I think it’s great.

Someone interviewed me, and in the interview they referred to me as a 39-year-old virgin. I was like, “Ow! Oh, yeah, I was.” It was what it was. Like I said, I just know that there are people who are going to read that and go, “Oh, that’s weird!” or people are going to read that who are conservative and think I’m not being pious enough about it. It’s out there now. Y’all can take whatever. Go ahead.

I kept underlining what you called the “grief cake period.” You were clearly feeling unhinged in the days and months after your husband died, but you’re also objective that you’re unhinged. To be able to sit back and write about a period, it’s so hard to do it without writing, “I felt crazy. I was eating too much.” Just speak to that a little bit. 

I was trying to be honest about what was happening. I think anyone who’s ever had grief or loss, that shock and the panic and the understanding that you don’t know what’s going on was really important. I think, as a writer and as a columnist, I write about myself a lot. I find myself gauging where I am in situations. During the grief cake period in my life, I certainly was aware. I would say something and go, “Oh. I just said that. Wow. I said that thing. I told that person I didn’t want to talk to them, and I walked away. I went somewhere else, and I thought I wouldn’t normally do that. I thought, “Who cares. I’m a widow. I don’t care. No one gets to judge me for anything I’m doing.” I didn’t slap anybody.

I think this is in the book. My sister had said, “What do you want me to do?”

I said, “Make sure I don’t cuss anybody out.” Then, I said something about someone that annoyed me, and she snapped at me. I said, “No, no, no. I don’t get to cuss at people, but I can still talk about them behind their back because they made me feel something. I didn’t feel good, so I’m talking about that because it made me sad. That’s what I’m doing, so you don’t get to judge me on that. 

I felt like I had the Bridget Jones voice in the back of my head, like the narration, “And now she’s crazy.” I was very conscious of that. 

I feel like I really got to know Scott while reading the book. Was that a goal of your memoir?

We were happy, and we had such good stuff coming up. He’d want me to be appropriately sad, and I am. 

It’s why I talked about the fight we had about the $65 Raven shorts, which I wear all the time. It’s hilarious. It’s stupid because he was a real person. You can’t live with somebody for six years and not have a fight with them. You can’t not have dumb arguments about stupid crap that mean nothing. I wanted to talk about that, too, so I would say sometimes, “Oh, and he was a jerk sometimes.”

He was a human being who breathed air. Of course he was a jerk sometimes. Everybody is. That’s what we are. That’s what we do. He was 85% the best person in the world. Truly, truly ... Then, he had moments where he had fights with his wife on Black Friday about $65 Raven shorts. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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