There’s a short story on Dialogue Paperless titled “The Widower,” written by Eric Jepson. It is about a thirty-three year old Mormon widower who prepares to remarry. Although it is brief, it evokes a good deal of the perplexity and guilt that a surviving spouse feels over the prospect of remarriage. I can easily believe that the surviving spouse from any marriage that has been even moderately happy will suffer from perplexity and guilt when approaching remarriage. But it seems likely—as this story “The Widower” shows—that the internal distress of remarriage is magnified for Latter-day Saints who have been married in the temple. They aren’t really free to remarry. For them, there’s a touch of adultery about idea. Or a touch of polygamy, which for modern Mormons is almost as confounding as adultery because a man who takes second eternal wife inevitably feels disloyal to the first. (If you’d like to read “The Widower,” go to the Dialogue website and click on the e-Papers icon.)
I haven’t had to confront the prospect of remarriage, being in the fiftieth year of a happy marriage. But I have no illusions about the depth and duration of my grief and loneliness should I be so unlucky as to outlive my wife. During the past eight years I have shared the grief and loneliness of several close relatives. One of them was a brother with whom I spoke on the phone almost daily until, three and a half years following his wife’s death, he remarried. I didn’t have to lose my own wife to understand how every nook and corner of his house reminded him of his dead wife. Ironically, the absence of a dead loved one speaks louder than his or her presence ever did. And I could understand perfectly my brother’s doubt and hesitation when he began to date a widow in his ward. I pride myself on having done him the good service during our phone conversations of saying over and over, “Good hell, yes, brother, go for it.” My wife and I were the official witnesses at their wedding. My brother was seventy-eight and his bride was eighty. You have to admit there is something daring, even defiant, about it when octogenarians marry. They know all too keenly that they haven’t much time. In any event, my brother and his wife are happy, and my phone conversations with him aren’t as frequent as they were.
I won’t pretend to guess the degree to which the memory of a dead spouse might intrude upon the happiness of a second marriage. But it seems to me, as I say above, that the internal distress of remarriage is magnified for Latter-day Saints who have been married in the temple to their first spouse. There’s more than a past loyalty in question here. If you expect to resume the intimate relationship of marriage upon your reunion in the Celestial Kingdom, how do you dispose of an intervening five or ten or twenty year intimacy with another person?
Or how do the couple in a second marriage which has also been sealed for eternity adjust to the prospect of the polygamous threesome they will become in the Hereafter? That could be a problem for modern Mormons though it wasn’t a problem for my mother, who grew up in a polygamous home. My parents each had children by a former marriage when they married in 1924. My father had been sealed to his first wife, Amanda, who had died five years earlier, but my mother had been married by civil ceremony to her first husband, whom she divorced for shiftlessness and non-support after only three years.
Just as an interesting side-note, I’ll quote an inquiry my father made in the letter in which he made his first tentative proposal of marriage. “You have been married,” he wrote; “another man is the father of your children. Do you still have a lingering love for that man, or do you feel & know that you can love me more? There could be such a thing as that man having a feeling of returning to his first love and children. In that event I wouldn’t want you ever to be sorry. Have you ever been sealed to your former husband or any other man? If so, how do you propose to solve that problem?” My mother, twenty years his junior and his former high school student, could happily reply that she had never been sealed to her first husband and she certainly harbored no affection for him. As for her future relationship with my father’s first wife, she understood the protocol of polygamy. During the forty-two years between my father’s death and her own—my father died in 1943 at seventy and my mother died in 1985 at ninety-three—she often conjectured on the nature of their reunion in the Hereafter. It was possible, she thought, that it would be Amanda, rather than my father, who first greeted her. It seemed to be a matter of protocol—the first wife signifying her acceptance of the second.