I’ve been alone a long time now, nearly 20 years. It’s something I never imagined, and yet at this point in my life, I can’t imagine its being otherwise. I guess you could say I’ve grown accustomed to this life alone. I’ve figured it out.
My life alone intensified five years after my husband, Paul, died; both my parents passed away, and sometime later, my Aunt Peg and Uncle Jamie left this world as well. It’s sobering to be this alone in the world. Being without a spouse, without parents, and without children leaves one in a kind of dangling solitude from which there truly is no rescue. It’s simply a state of being. And I figured either I could continue feeling I was at the end of that perilous rope or I could find a family of my own — a family without the traditional ties but one that nevertheless provides everything the traditional family does and, in many cases, probably much more. So one thing I figured out was the benefit of being able to choose this family.
A lot of the rest of what I figured out had to do with food. I realized that by inviting someone to join me for dinner — and on occasion that “someone” may be as many as 21 people — I’ve accomplished a lot. I love to cook, so I’ve brought to my home people for whom I can cook. And I may presume that I’ve been able to provide these people with some good food and company as well. Though I can’t be absolutely certain I’ve done that for them, I can be certain about the pleasure it brings me.
It’s a mystery to me why I haven’t remarried. I suppose there are many reasons, but I do recall that in those first confusing months after Paul’s death, I felt certain I would marry again. I’d been happy in my marriage to Paul, and so I reasoned that I would find that again. I wished we’d had children, but life is so complex, and to those who truly believe that everything in one’s life is a result of a deliberate decision, I can only say that I wish that were really true.
Most of what any of us encounters is such a complex stew of circumstance and happenstance that we’re truly fortunate if we can choose what we’ll have for dinner that night, much less our own destiny. Anything more that seems deliberate is simply illusion. Paul was 39 when he died. I have many friends who have lost their spouses at a young age, and I know people whose children have died, and friends who have had accidents in which they’ve lost their legs or their minds. No, it seems to me that in many cases we’re asked to react to circumstances, not choose them.
And so, for whatever reason, I’m still alone. But I’m not alone in any real way. For one thing, the renovation of this house has consumed me, as much as any marriage with at least three children would have. Constantly, there were decisions to make, budgets to balance, supplies to pick up or deliver — and all for the ultimate well-being of the structure as well as my soul. I needed this house in a way I’d never needed anything.
After I bought the house, the pace of the project quickened, and once the first few boards were torn from the side of the building, it didn’t slow for nine long years. And so, within that storm of activity, I found a compelling heart to every one of my days, a rhythm that kept beating and never slowed, until just recently. With the work still unfinished but so close, I can rest a bit now and reflect. For a long time, reflection wasn’t possible. Or even desirable. The work was a kind of frenzy; if it had been set to fast motion, as is popular now on house-building shows, you would have seen siding and roofs flying off, additions and dormers magically appearing, walls disappearing, doors moving from one opening to another, and windows vanishing as new ones zoomed into place. If Mary were to come back from the dead for a visit, she’d be lost in her own house.
But within all of that, there was always time for a meal. The first really new parts of this house were the kitchen and the dining room. And so these two spaces became almost sacred as other spaces were pounded into place. And there were meals, gatherings, parties — something for which I wasn’t particularly well prepared. My Aunt Peg had given dinner parties on occasion, and as a child, I sat there uncomfortably as the erudite conversation wafted high above my head. But the food was good. That was always something to look forward to.
And there was something else, something much harder to grasp. The dining room in that old Colonial house had a big fireplace; in the winter, the fire was always lit, as were the candles, which gave the room a glow and a cozy feeling, as if we’d all come in out of the cold to gather there. Of course, we had, in a sense, but to my way of thinking there was something more primeval about it — a kind of bonding together against the rigors of the wilderness of an ever-more-confusing world. Maybe, in some vague way, that’s what I’m reaching for when I invite friends to dinner.
My first bit of fortune came with the table that my parents left me. It had belonged to my great-grandparents. My great-grandparents, I should explain, had a lot of money — money that never made it past the year 1929. The money was gone, but the furniture stayed with us, passed down and down into ever-smaller homes. In our modest house in New Jersey, the table was a circle with four grand chairs around it. Two of the chairs had arms, and with their high, ornate backs, they seemed somehow out of scale against the table, which had a beautiful mahogany finish. As a child, I loved to hide under the table and was always slightly awed by the fierce nature of what held it up: a grand base carved into fearsome eagle’s claws, grasping big wooden balls.
In the basement, my father had stored four more chairs to match the set and four leaves that could be set into the expandable table frame. I’d never seen it with more than one leaf in it, because my parents’ dining room had been too small. But, once the table made its way to this new house, I was able to expand it completely and set all the chairs around it. I’d already envisioned it many times as the workmen were demolishing two old bedrooms and putting the new wainscoting into place: This is where the table will go. This is where the fun will happen.
The appearance of my new dining room and the banquet-size table must have seemed absurd to anyone watching this process, as this was a home for one person. Who was going to sit around this table? I’m sure it’s a question poised on the lips of anyone who enters this house, especially all the men who come to do various jobs, wiring and plumbing and flooring. I can see them glance into the big room and then glance again.
My dinners began some years back when, weary of trying to figure out what to do for Thanksgiving and Christmas, I hit on the idea of what I called “orphan holidays.” Gradually, I noticed that I wasn’t the only one around who was alone at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Not only were there those who were truly alone, but there were others who weren’t technically alone but were in transition — friends whose spouses had died, friends in the midst of divorce, friends in some other kind of despair. I realized we could all come together on those days, and hosting the holidays fulfilled my need to cook a big meal for many hungry friends.
At the most, I’ve crowded 25 people around that table (with an extension), and at the least, I’ve hosted seven — all grateful for a good place to go to share what can otherwise be deadly days of remorse or sadness while (you’re certain) the entire rest of the world is happily celebrating with their big families. An exaggeration, of course, as I know there are people with large families who grit their teeth through the whole ordeal — but, truly, holidays can be so difficult for anyone alone.
I love the holidays as a way to try out new recipes and to re-experience the joy of bringing out old favorites. I also love this time as a way of loving my house. You could look at it as something very similar to dressing up — that wonderful outfit just hanging in the closet, waiting for the right occasion. Well, I love dressing up my house. It’s a chance to decorate. (I’d never unpacked even a single Christmas ornament before I started hosting the orphan holidays. It seemed so pointless. Decorate for what? For whom?) And it’s an opportunity to get out the good china and silverware, use the gravy boat, change the tablecloth, put new tapers into the candlesticks…whatever.
It’s no different from what everyone else loves about having family over for Thanksgiving and Christmas; it’s a chance to change gears, see the house through different eyes. I love every part of a party: planning the menu, cleaning the house, setting the table, cooking the meal — which I insist must be almost completely ready before the first guest arrives. All I want to have to do once the party starts is put the food on the table. After all, I want to attend this party, too. That’s why I’m giving it!
And so, out of the somber puzzle of how to cook for one came the joyous process of cooking for 20 and more. I recommend it highly. My favorite moment of all comes at the height of the party: to sit for a moment and listen…listen to the talk, the laughter, the joy within these walls.
Excerpted from Saturday Beans and Sunday Suppers, Edie Clark’s new memoir about special people, special places, and special foods, including favorite recipes, available now from edieclark.com.