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The Dead Wives Club, or Char in Love

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“People would be like, ‘Why aren’t you crying?’ ” Cristen’s friend said.

“People don’t understand,” said Cristen.

The widows started going on vacation together, with their kids, too. Madeline used to host all her family celebrations. Now, to keep the kids from falling apart, she traveled most holidays. That first summer of 2002, just to get a break from being a 9/11 widow—“On vacation, you can be anonymous,” Madeline said—Char organized a trip to the Bahamas.

They went for a week to Atlantis, a resort on Paradise Island—seven widows and seventeen kids. The adults lounged by the pool while the kids played on the water slides. It was pricey, but Char loved the place and, on a second trip with Lisa, decided to buy a week every year.

“Mad, we bought a time-share,” Char told Madeline excitedly when she returned, then added, “You did, too.”

“I did?” Madeline asked, but she was happy to send off a check.

The worst was when the plastic-surgery news got around. “Are those new?” somebody asked Tina in the supermarket, and pointed at her breasts.

That first Bahamas trip had been a kind of breakthrough—24 of them and no husbands, like a sprawling extended family. One night, four of the widows stayed in Lisa’s room, drinking a bottle of wine on the balcony. The air was thick, you could see the water. One widow who’d lost a husband and a cousin said, “Can you still not believe this sometimes?” Then they all cried for a while, though within five minutes they were hysterically laughing about what Lisa—as they knew by now, she had that mouth!—had said to that poor man at the pool.

Every day the seven widows sat by the pool. One day, a gentleman next to them made an observation. Here were all these women and all these kids but no husbands. Where are these lucky guys, he wondered, off golfing?

“No,” said Lisa, “they’re dead.”

Well, the guy lost all his color so fast, and his wife couldn’t apologize enough, and Mad and Char had to rush to explain.

In some respects, firemen were the pivot point around which Staten Island neighborhoods revolved. In eulogies, these men not only ran into burning buildings, they shoveled snow from sidewalks—everyone’s on the block. Plus, their homes were meeting places. At Madeline’s, where fireman buddies had helped her husband install a backyard pool, 100 people collected every Fourth of July, without invitations. But firemen were more than helpful neighbors and welcoming hosts. They were also the guys who’d pull off the stunts no one could stop talking about. People still recalled how at his dad’s barbecue, Chuck Margiotta—with Char’s husband, the other star of a Fire Department basketball league—would climb onto the roof and, scaring the bejesus out of all below, dive head-first into the pool.

With firemen gone, family differences gathered centrifugal force. In Staten Island, there were horror stories. “Fractured families,” as Char put it. Madeline hardly spoke to her brother-in-law. One mother-in-law had already taken one widow to court, trying to enforce visiting rights to the grandkids. Money fed the differences. A child who was the product of a fireman’s one-night stand walked away with $2 million, while the fiancée and his family got nothing (except lawyers’ fees).

Perhaps envy was at the root of conflict. But grief was in there, too. And money proved a convenient way to express it. In this regard, parents of the dead suffered especially. Invitations would bypass them, going directly to the widow’s house, which was also where their son’s firehouse brothers gathered. Who, some parents wanted to know, would recognize their loss, compensate them? “We’re the forgotten people. We lost our son. We had him 45 years. We got nothing,” said Chuck Margiotta’s father.

“Where do you stop?” Margiotta’s other son, Mike, shot back. “Everybody is trying to say he’s a victim.”

“Parents and the wife,” responded his father. He’d weighed the claims. “No cousins, no aunts.”

In some families, old rivalries reasserted themselves. Catherine Buck—Char met her at the nail salon—had been married to fireman Greg Buck for two years. Shortly before September 11, Catherine and Greg had made a down payment on a beat-up house on a pond. In the meantime, they’d lived with Greg’s parents.

One morning, Catherine sat in her newly renovated home on the street she’d named for Greg—she lives there with a bunch of cats and a dog—and contemplated why she and her in-laws no longer speak. To Catherine, grief had turned competitive. “It devolved into this total struggle between my mother-in-law and me,” said Catherine. She recalled the funeral. “My mother-in-law went up to the casket and would not leave,” said Catherine, who then insisted that the funeral director get a chair for her. “Put it next to his body,” she told him. “I am his wife, and I will be the last one up there.”

One afternoon, the Bucks—Catherine’s in-laws—were at home in their 100-year-old Victorian house twenty minutes from where Catherine now lives. Ernst and Josephine Buck miss Gregory—they call him Gregory—desperately, and constantly relive moments of his life, like a last request to his father: Would he walk the dog? They can’t understand why a street named after their Gregory should be near a house he had never lived in. “I couldn’t go in that house,” said his father. “Gregory never went in there.” Catherine called her street Greg J. Buck Place. His father purchased his own street sign, Gregory Buck Place, and planted it on the edge of his lawn.

Greg’s mother said she always liked Catherine. “I liked her sharing with my son,” she said. “She’s intelligent, she’s pretty, she’s got style.” But with Gregory gone and no grandkids, is Catherine even family? “To say I miss her, it’s like saying I miss the cats,” said his father.


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