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Mon September 6, 2004
In September of 1933, Viola Goode Stroud of Camden, Alabama returned home, with a small son and a load of trouble.
By Don Noble
Grass Widow is a pleasant, small book of only seventy pages that tells a pleasant, small story. In September of 1933, Viola Goode Stroud of Camden, Alabama returned home, with a small son and a load of trouble. She had been away for ten years with her husband, Oxford Stroud, but now she was coming home in disgrace, that is to say, divorced. Auguries for this marriage had not been good. She tells us, ?Father, on my wedding day, fearing my error, had pressed a hundred dollars into my hand saying, ?Keep it for coming home. You might need it.??
She suffered, as we would characterize it now, from low self-esteem. ?I had been a dunce for about as far back as I could remember?or why else should I have fallen to such a deplorable state?? A failed marriage in 1933 was a big deal, and Viola did not look forward to life in Camden. ?Life in a small town was to me an unknown quantity. Somehow I feared its probing, its intimacy, its judgments, its punishment.? Camden, Alabama will remind the more literary-minded of Sherwood Anderson?s Winesburg, Ohio, where everyone pays attention to everyone else?s business and personal frustrations, repression, and loneliness drive people to violence and hypochondria and madness.
In the manuscript which was given to her son in 1998, shortly after Viola?s death, Liddell paints a picture of life in Camden. It is not altogether a pretty picture. Viola, who had graduated from Judson, is a schoolteacher and, as such, must be purer than pure. She must not drink or smoke or go to honky-tonks or be seen with men, and she must join a church and a woman?s club and be the model of propriety in absolutely every way.
She is under special scrutiny because she is, as the title tells you, a Grass Widow. she is divorced and has a son, and, so it is assumed, having known the marriage bed, is a special threat and danger to the wives and mothers of Camden. She will be catnip to men, since she is not a virgin and ?knows things.? Her sister Mamie laments, ?Why couldn?t you have been a sod widow instead of grass??
This means, of course, that the ex-husband would be dead, and everyone agrees that would be advantageous for Viola. (No one asks the ex-husband, Mr. Stroud, what he thinks.) This definition, ?grass widow,? as a woman whose ex-husband is still walking around on grass instead of lying beneath the sod, is to my mind the second most famous false etymology in common parlance. First used in early modern English, the phrase is actually from the Dutch grasweduwe, and means a discarded mistress, not a wife, and one who has probably been making illicit love outdoors, on the grass, not in the marriage bed.
Just for the record, my favorite false or folk etymology is asparagus. Before the true origins of the word ?asparagus? were discovered, many observed that sparrows enjoyed eating the young heads of asparagus and so assumed that the vegetable had once been called ?sparrow grass.? It?s not so. You may look it up for yourself.
Anyway. Viola wants to find a man and remarry, and she does. There are only two truly eligible bachelors in Camden and she snags one, Mr. Liddell, obviously. They court decorously and chastely?mostly at choir practice, through the winter, and become engaged the summer of 1934. She is very happy, and especially so because now she can quit teaching, which she really hates. She tells us candidly that, while courting, she read Will?s magazines, The Breeder?s Gazette and The Southern Ruralist, instead of her usual Atlantic Monthly and New Yorker, and that she very carefully avoided correcting Will Liddell?s errors of grammar.
She knew, that with a Southern male, that could be a deal breaker. She also went hunting with Will. Her son, however, on a similar hunting expedition, came home with a dead mockingbird in his bag of game. This was only 1934, remember, and we had not all learned yet, even if it was an accident, what a serious sin that was.