In her moving debut memoir Unremarried Widow, Artis Henderson reflects on the brief time she spent with her husband Miles, an Army pilot who died in Iraq in 2006, just a few months after they were married. With profound openness, Henderson writes about the before — a young couple figuring out life and love in the Army — and the after — a widow suddenly shaped by a new reality. In her journey, Henderson considers her own father’s untimely death, her mother’s resolve, and the strength of other military widows. I spoke with Henderson, via email, about her sense of identity in the Army, her understanding of memory, and her experience sharing her story.
What is an unremarried widow? In the book, you’re somewhat hesitant to join the military world and culture. What did you make of this label?
“Unremarried Widow” is the official classification given by the military to women like me — widows whose husbands have died while connected to the armed services. Until I remarry, I am part of the Army’s system. And, truthfully, I’m grateful. The U.S. military does a good job of taking care of its surviving spouses: I have health coverage and I receive a small check every month. I struggled with military life before I was married, but now that my husband is gone I’m proud to be tied to the Army.
Throughout the book, there are moments where you question your new life, wondering how you got there. How did you conceptualize your identity? Did the perspective you’ve gained help flesh out those feelings?
Conceptualizing one’s identity as a military spouse is no easy task. Military wives are almost always classified by their husband’s rank, branch, and duty station. Having an identity separate from all that is difficult. I was raised by a tough-minded single mom, and I’m pretty strong willed. I like to think that, given more time, I would have figured out how to balance my ambitions with being a military spouse. But in the brief years Miles and I shared, I always fought against it.
What did it mean for you — and your mother — to make the memories of your loved ones “disappear”?
It’s amazing how a person can make someone seem to vanish from his or her life, even someone they love. After my father died, my mother took down his photos. She gave away most of his things. She stopped talking about him, and we pretended as if he never existed. After Miles died, I found that I did the same. Even now, it’s hard for me to bring him up in conversation. I find — and I think it was the same way for my mom — that I don’t want to share him with anyone. If I don’t display his photos, if I don’t talk about him, then his memory is mine alone.
Given those experiences, what did you realize about the power of memory?
I realized how intensely private memory is. I have a good friend whose father just died, and even though I know that she’s hurting, although I might hold her hand through her grief, I can never understand the depth and power of what she still carries of her father. Those memories belong only to her.
Having worked as a journalist and columnist, how did you approach writing about something so deeply personal?
The whole time I was writing the book, I never considered that people might read it. If I actually stopped to think about what I was putting down, then I think I would have gotten stuck. I never would have allowed myself to write such personal stories. So I just wrote. I wrote and I wrote, and I never looked back. It was only after the book was out of my hands, when the final edit had been submitted and the manuscript was going to print, that I realized, “Holy crap, people are going to see this.”
What happened after that light bulb moment? Did you have — or develop — any preconceptions about your audience and what they might take from your book?
I let myself have a good couple of moments of panic, and then I figured that I had written the story the best way I knew how. Sometimes that’s all we can do. I had no idea how people would take the book, but I’ve been touched over and over by the generosity of the response.