Brief Encounters : Rose Styron : A Woman of Grace
From that distance that separates image from reality, Rose Styron appears aesthetic, almost fragile, in her pale colors, wispy white hair, and genteel air. But however demure the first impression, it takes little time to realize she is a woman of strength and intention.
Ms. Styron holds court in the Vineyard Haven family compound where she and her late husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning, National Medal of Arts author William Styron, spent extended summers for almost 50 years. It is a pastoral setting framed by hedges, where the lawn rolls to the harbor and clusters of masts create changing canvasses of summer.
On this late afternoon, it is a sanctuary that vibrates with a confluence of children, eight coming-and-going grandchildren, and various assistants. Rather than seen, their presence is felt among the parked cars, the clutter of toys, and the voices that waft through open doors.
And at the helm is Ms. Styron.
Casually dressed and barefoot, the poet, the staunch human rights activist (former chair of Amnesty International's National Advisory Council), and mother of four, sits in a lawn chair facing the harbor. She looks as relaxed as anyone returning to spend another Vineyard summer among family and a long-time fraternity of friends.
Her voice is animated: "I really realize what a gift it is to be on this Island and to be part of the Island community," she begins. "I stayed here for a whole year after Bill died (2006). This was my theater. I would get up each morning and sit at that window and watch the changing seasons, the birds, the boats going by, and respond to the change. That particular year of writing became like a diary of whatever was going on in my head. And that was very different from the poetry I'd written before: a diary of a mind in grief."
And she adds, "I'm still in the space of missing him, and finding it odd to be one instead of two."
After being married 53 years, Ms. Styron admits she'll probably always view herself as partnered, but says it's comforting. "In fact, in the past couple of months, I've felt as if a tremendous weight has been lifted that I didn't realize was there. And when it suddenly lifted, I thought, 'Oh, this must have been what Bill felt like the times when his depression lifted.' He'd say, 'This morning it went away again.'"
She leans on words for emphasis: "I feel so much lighter now than I did for a year and a half. I've always felt very free on the Vineyard, because on the Vineyard I could always do what made me happy. And Bill would always be there when I got back, so coming back now is quite" - she pauses to seek the right word - "light."
Happy is a simple list: being outdoors, being athletic (she has a long-standing doubles game on the yacht club tennis court next to the house), friends, family, time alone to write.
"There are all kinds of different inspirations," she says. "My inspiration is nature, visual. I don't start with an idea of something I want to say, the way, say Sheldon Hackney does. I either hear a phrase in my head that starts a poem, or I look out the window."
Ms. Styron is working on a new book of poetry. Does she write on a computer? She responds with a jolt and laughs. "Never a typewriter or a computer. My brain and my soul have to connect with my hand."
She flashes a star-quality smile, and talks about how lucky she's been. "When you've had luck in your life, it probably makes you stronger than people who haven't had luck. I haven't had much adversity in my life - except for the last few years with Bill."
And when asked to define her "luck," she smiles and describes her happy and privileged childhood in Baltimore, Maryland. Rose Burgunder was the youngest of three, "the one who wanted to be in the top of the tree and not come down for dinner."
Her father, who died in his early 50s, took over her mother's family's department store, S. Kann Sons Company, Eighth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, in Washington, D.C.
Her mother - "old-fashioned and elegant" - was a human rights activist, prominent in organizations, who lived to be 102. And who hung up on her daughter when told she was going to marry William Styron.
The couple married in Italy, where Ms. Styron had gone to translate her master's thesis from Johns Hopkins University into a book, and where a 27-year-old Mr. Styron was on a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome.
When the newlyweds returned to the States, Ms. Styron's mother became, "his fan forever."
Ms. Styron continues, "Bill and I fought a lot. Everybody knew that. We both had high tempers. But I understood it. We didn't mean anything by it. But people like my mother who grew up in households where there was never a rough word, weren't sure - and she once said to me, 'You know if you and Bill ever split up" - she giggles - "well, I'm on Bill's side.'"