On Her Own: Up Close and Personal with Ginger Howell

By Gwenn Voelckers

It was love at first sight. At the ripe old age of 14, Ginger Howell met and was smitten by her future husband-to-be Dick Howell in Saginaw, Mich. They happened to be neighbors — and Ginger was robbing the cradle. Dick was 13.

“Even at that young age, he was so good-looking, smart, and athletic — especially at swimming!” Ginger beamed.

These childhood chums turned into high-school sweethearts, and then years later got engaged when they were students at the University of Michigan. Ginger got “pinned,” an old-time expression, which signaled the beginning of an exclusive courtship akin to engagement. Dick and Ginger tied the knot following graduation.

When Dick was drafted, the couple lived and traveled abroad in post-war Germany for a year, then moved to Rochester where Dick was hired by Eastman Kodak and they started a family. Three kids later, they had nestled into a rustic ranch in Pittsford, where Ginger launched Seasonal Kitchen, a cooking school in their home, while Dick made a name for himself at Kodak.

When Dick retired, he joined Ginger in the kitchen and together they taught cooking classes that mixed good-hearted ribbing with lots of laughs, helpful cooking tips and demonstrations. The classes, which included dinner, were (and continue to be) a hit!

Sadly, Dick lost his battle with cancer five years ago. As a widow, Ginger was determined to carry on their cooking legacy and love of life, both the sweet and the savory.

Q: After you lost Dick, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced?

A: Facing life without someone to lean on was a huge change for me. Dick and I did everything together after he retired. We were inseparable. And he did so much around the house. I wasn’t sure how I was going to stay on top of things.

I was also very worried about finances and whether I would be able to hold onto the house and continue the cooking classes.

Q: How did you overcome these challenges?

A: Well, I thank my lucky stars for my daughter Holly. She stepped right in to help me lead the cooking school, which was no small feat. Each class requires lots of preparation, shopping and rehearsal ahead of time, followed by hours of clean-up afterwards.

While Holly and I couldn’t sustain the 11 classes per week Dick and I led, she and I kept it going. This was important for financial reasons. I needed to pay the bills. But I also needed and wanted to maintain my social network.

Many of my class members became friends and, as such, became my support system after Dick died. I’ll be forever grateful for that.

My financial consultant was also invaluable. Thanks to his help, Dick and I had a retirement nest-egg I could live on as long as I was careful about my spending. That’s not always easy when you love to entertain, cook and enjoy delicious food! But I made it work.  

Q: There is a commonly held belief that single women in midlife are inevitably unhappy without a partner. How do you respond to that?

A: I’m bemused by that belief. Perhaps these are women — or men, too, I suppose — who haven’t given themselves a chance to see what they can do and experience for themselves.

Living alone can be so empowering. I know this may sound cliched, but I find every day to be an adventure.

Q: Has living alone provided you with any unexpected revelations or opportunities?

A: Oh, so many! For one thing, I can still shovel snow at my age — I’m 90! I know this sounds simplistic, but it’s very symbolic. I’ve learned I can do things for myself. My attitude is that shoveling snow is great exercise! Good for the legs.

It gives me a great deal of satisfaction knowing that I am capable on my own; that I can depend on myself.

I’ve also learned that if things are beyond me, I can ask for help and rely on the kindness of others. Last month, the UPS guy showed up with a delivery on a very snowy day. I asked if he could help shovel the front porch before he left, which he did so gladly. I don’t see asking for help as a weakness; I see it as a sign of strength and self-confidence.

Q: What does an ideal day look like for you now?

A: On an ideal day, I wake up to a clean kitchen, having washed the dishes the night before. I put away the clean dishes, make my list of chores for the day (which typically includes a trip to the grocery store), and then I get busy trying new recipes or prepping for a cooking class that evening.

After the class and everyone has left, Holly and I clean up and collapse exhausted, but happy, in my living room. We are full of gratitude for the beautiful people and purpose in our lives.

Q: What advice do you have for women and men who find themselves living alone in midlife?

A: Keep working at something you love to do — something that matters. Working keeps us young and alive! For me, it’s Seasonal Kitchen. For others it could be hiking, writing, playing an instrument, travel, you name it. I encourage people to stay active and engaged in life. And to be with friends and definitely own a pet, if possible.

Oh, and take a cooking class!

Q: And one last question: How do you plan to spend this evening?

A: Mercifully alone (smiles). I adore a quiet evening to myself. As you can imagine, I’m very busy food shopping, prepping and leading classes, going out to dinner with friends, participating in wine tasting events, attending fundraisers, etc.

I look forward to an evening alone watching “World News Tonight,” followed by “Jeopardy,” and then snuggling up with a good book. I love reading and re-reading anything by Irwin Shaw and Rona Jaffe.

Tomorrow I will wake up rested and eager to take on a new day, on my own and looking forward to what’s to come.

Gwenn Voelckers is the founder and facilitator of Live Alone and Thrive, empowerment workshops for women held throughout the year in Mendon. She is also the author of “Alone and Content: Inspiring, empowering essays to help divorced and widowed women feel whole and complete on their own.” To purchase her book, learn about workshops, or invite her to speak, call 585-624-7887, email gvoelckers@rochester.rr.com or visit www.aloneandcontent.com.