One familiar, modern-day phrase is "Identity Theft" and is defined as the unauthorized taking of one's every means of proving who you are, and the inherent rights and privileges. These things comprise your passport in life. There are cards for everything: driver's licenses, credit cards, debit cards, insurance cards, social security cards, Medicare, and the list continues.

You can walk up to a bank clerk as a total stranger, but as soon as you present your identification, you are at once able to get what you need, take what you want, and prove you are so entitled. With mine, I can say, "I am Shirley Coles."

There are countless roles from our earliest years which tell the world who we are. I was child, grandchild, student, cousin, girlfriend, fiancé, wife, mother, graduate student, member of Phi Beta Kappa, secretary, avid reader, sometime painter, member of Jr. Hadassah, counselor, teacher, volunteer, home owner… widow.

The list of the roles I play has become shorter and shorterJust over one year ago, I lost my mate of almost sixty years. During those many years, when asked who I was, or when being introduced to others, there was that long list of roles from which to select and identify the woman I had become. I was Shirley Stoler-Coles, mother of Mark, Bruce and Debra, wife of Edwin J. Coles, grandmother, counselor, school teacher, literacy volunteer, Jewish woman, and owner of so many little plastic cards.

It's almost impossible to realize how much you depend on these roles to identify yourself – even to yourself – until they no longer apply! If we cannot feel the security of belonging in our own minds, presenting ourselves to the world at large can become a daunting process. When that becomes the case, it is as though we don't know who we are. Take, for example, the departure of all our children as they go off to build their own lives. "Mother" may still be accurate, but the role seems less sharply defined, and that leaves us uneasy. So much so, that it has a name; it becomes a syndrome called "the empty nest." As a widow now, the list of the roles I play has become shorter and shorter. The changes have been, and continue to be, traumatic.

I know I share this experience with widows and widowers the world over. Looking at the list above, I decided to see what is left if I subtracted all the roles which are now retired or outgrown. I can no longer claim to be a child since my parents died many years ago. Despite my age, I sometimes long for that feeling of being someone's child who can come for a special hug and comfort. But life took that away from me. I now have children of my own and I am still mother, but rarely called upon to function as such. The maternal role is one which exists now mainly in my heart. So is my role of grandchild. All four of these wonderful people are lost to me. Now I have grandchildren, so I can say I'm a grandmother of four wonderful girls. I seldom see or hear from them; they've grown and are scattered in their various pursuits.

No longer a student on any level, I teach, although this task, which I love so much, is performed as a volunteer. It's a solo pursuit, but this one can stay on the list. There are appreciative responses, but it's not enough to nourish my need to belong. Not enough.

I am relocated now, from the east coast to the southwest. It will take a while to once again become neighbor, friend and someone whose work is noticed, valued and sought after. It will take a while for me to be recognized when I go into the city to shop, to the library, the community and senior centers, to the residential community where I offer my tutoring services. How I miss hearing someone call out my name and ask about my family!

I have to go forth every day without my safety netTo be sure, I am still Mrs. Ed Coles. That is the name I sign on this form or that. But no one here knew him. He lives in my heart and memory now. Being somewhat shy, I used to bask in his sunshine with people. When we first met at the Jewish Community Center, he was sitting at a piano, surrounded by friends and would-be friends. I was on the fringe of the group, but he met my glance and the rest was history. He is no longer at my side, at a piano, standing in front of a group as an entertainer. He loved making others laugh while I stood there kvelling. I stand alone now.

I have to go forth every day without my safety net. The ground does not feel solid under my feet. Who am I? It's as though I don't know for certain, and if I don't know for certain, how can I convince anyone else? Throughout my life, I was not fortunate enough to have been taught what it meant to be a Jew. I knew I was Jewish, because my mother told me so and it was a given that I would marry a Jewish man some day. Other than that, I was on automatic pilot, so to speak, going through motions without emotions, such as joining a Jewish women's group, or being at family tables during holidays. Seen and not heard.

Moving about the country in pursuit of my husband's career opportunities, I had often wished for the company of other Jewish women. But it was not something he wanted to be part of. As a matter of fact, he shied away from any contact the congregations would try to make. I did not pursue it on my own. We remained religiously anonymous. But it was always with me. Always. When I would hear about the plight of Jews the world over, or the music, a huge lump would form in my throat. I was always at a distance from something that was part of me.

Now there is a role for me which has been there all along. I have only to reach out and claim it. I have to do it on my own, and then perhaps I will not be on my own. I have to look through the glass less darkly and remember that a Jewish life makes one a part of something worldwide, ready to embrace me. I am a Jewish woman. I feel it calling to me, and I know I would be invited to sit at the table of an Orthodox Jewish family on a Friday night anywhere in the community of Judaism, and be welcome. Someday, I may be secure enough for it to be my table.

I could be the Jewish woman who is someone's mother, able to share and pass on what I learn about this life. I could be the Jewish woman who is grandmother to four bright, young girls who know nothing about their heritage. I could be the Jewish woman who finds new friends in a community which has history and roots beyond comprehension. I could be the Jewish woman who volunteers, teaches, studies again, who writes and shares her new self with readers of this site. To claim this role, I have only to take a deep breath and walk through that door.