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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Mary Turner Lane, September 9 and 16, 1986; May 21, 1987; October 1 and 28, 1987. Interview L-0039. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Working through husband's sudden death and finding a new life direction

After Tom's death, Lane found that she was paralyzed not only by grief but by anger that her life had turned out so differently from the movies. She spent several years living with her parents who provided her and her daughter with needed support, but eventually the experience of widowhood led Lane to question who she wanted to be.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Mary Turner Lane, September 9 and 16, 1986; May 21, 1987; October 1 and 28, 1987. Interview L-0039. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

So then it was in 1948, in the fall of that year, that he had been sent to Virginia. It was in the first week that he was there that he had a automobile accident and was killed instantly.
PAMELA DEAN:
Had you moved down there by then?
MARY TURNER LANE:
No. He was traveling the state to assess what his work would be, and then we would find a place and go. My phone rang and the voice said, "Is this Mrs. Lane," and I said, "Yes," and he said, "I hate to tell you, Mrs. Lane but your husband is dead." So that's what happened. In retrospect, I know that it took a year to believe it. It was about as shattering a blow and delivered in as shattering a way that I could ever imagine. So family and friends moved in and took care of me. I was twenty-nine and my child was twenty-two months old. So we simply went home to my mother and father, back to New Bern, and how fortunate we were to be able to go back. There was really nothing else I could do. There was no reason to stay in Pennsylvania. Our friends there were only friends of a year or year and a half, and I needed to be cared for, and the child needed to be cared for, because death is like a wound, a terrible wound, a searing, gaping wound. Someone needs to bandage that wound and keep that wound as protected as possible. So I was very fortunate to go home where there were people who would love us, and comfort us, and carry us really until I could emerge and begin to think about what we would do. At the time I really didn't know what grief was. I didn't know what grieving was. I knew it was all right to cry. I knew it was all right to pray and do a number of things, but at that time we didn't know it was all right to be angry. And it's only in retrospect, as we've learned so much about grief and written so much, that I realize that I was so angry. I was angry at this man for dying. I was angry that he had gone away, and I had no dream. Everything was gone.
PAMELA DEAN:
All the promises were broken.
MARY TURNER LANE:
Gone. Then I realized it was not just the man I was angry at, it was society. It was all the movies. It was all of the myths and the notions about what a woman could do with her life or was supposed to do, and what life was supposed to be. So I really had to do a great deal of healing. One of the most amazing things to me was I felt that I had absolutely no sense of identity. Suddenly I was back at home, and I was Mary and Albert Willis's daughter. I was Mary Ellen's mother. I was somebody else's granddaughter. I was somebody's sister. I didn't really have any sense of I was somebody. Now that was curious to me because I had always had a sense of who I was growing up. I had had a sense of identity in college. I was a leader. I was a good student. I was all those things. But as a widow I was no one. I was nobody. There was nothing. So that loss of identity was a startling thing to me. It took me a while to figure out that that's really that it was. But that's what it was.
PAMELA DEAN:
Because the role that you were supposed to be playing had been taken away.
MARY TURNER LANE:
Yes. And if you're not a wife what can you be? So after the anger and the grief and the horror, there began to be some searching inside me that there should be more in life than to be Mary and Albert Willis's daughter and Mary Ellen's mother. So at the end of three years, three very comfortable years in a way, because I was living in a lovely home—Mother and Daddy were wonderful to me. My father took over the father's role so beautifully. He came in at 5:00 every afternoon and went back to the nursery and played with her. So all of that was good. All I knew to think of doing in terms of work was to renew a teacher's certificate.