No Longer Having Dinner with Loneliness
A widower recalls many difficult mealtimes after he lost his wife, and how he now keeps loneliness away from the table
When I lost my wife to a sudden and unexpected illness, loneliness claimed her side of our bed. I no longer slept enfolded in the warmth of Muriel's soft curves. Instead, the sharp edges of loneliness pierced me awake. Loneliness slept when I did, but awakened in a fury, replacing Muriel's smile and kiss with its icy grip.
Learning how to be alone but not lonely is a class that men of my generation never took. We went from our mothers to war to our wives and were rarely alone. My family knew that and surrounded me with love during the first weeks of our loss. Children, grandchildren and close friends rushed from throughout the country to comfort me. But when their lives called them home, loneliness attacked me like a fever.
Learning how to be alone but not lonely is a class that men of my generation never took.
I saw at once the fever it brought spiked at night. Having lunch alone is not uncommon; a hurried sandwich between tasks is part of the American diet. Dinner is different. That's when parents and children gather around a table and become a family. Once the children are grown, dinner is when a husband and wife remember when dining alone was a prelude to intimacy.
But now loneliness sat opposite me at the dinner table, sharing whatever food was delivered that evening. It sneered when reminding me with every bite that I was destined to eat most meals alone for the rest of my life. If I were to enjoy food again, I would have to show loneliness I was unavailable for dinner.
Dinner with Friends
Muriel and I had many friends, the closest of whom immediately called and invited me to dinner. I gratefully accepted and happily said yes when they insisted I return quickly or arrange to meet soon at a restaurant. It was clear they wanted to spare me the ordeal of looking across the dinner table at loneliness.
I began calling other friends deeper in our address book, assuming they would gladly meet me at a restaurant or at one of our homes as they often had in the past. Surprisingly, many said they were booked for weeks ahead and would have to call back. Most didn't call back. It quickly became evident they saw dinner tables as set for couples, not for odd numbers, and three was proving to be an especially odd number.
There were other friends who agreed to meet to eat, but not to dine. Dinner was a race to be run as quickly as possible. The interval between "I'll have the lamb chops medium well" to "Please bring the check" grew shorter with every meal. Friends who hesitated to rush Muriel and me through dinner were quick to order food while I had yet to open the menu.
I was now a single person, apparently half as important as I had been when married for nearly seventy years. Could I convince them it wasn't food I needed but conversation that had fled my silent home?
I was now a single person, apparently half as important as I had been when married for nearly seventy years.
Once our children were grown, Muriel and I went out to dinner four or five evenings a week. She often said, "As a mother, I spent twenty-five years hosting a dinner party for five every evening. Now, we're going out to eat!" By eating out, she meant celebrating the slow dance of a shared meal.
When alone, we never glanced at menus until we had ordered a glass of wine and began talking of our day and of our plans for the days to follow. Only then did we order food. When dining out with friends, we would hurry to the restaurant early to sit alone at the bar and talk of our day over a glass of wine.
Cooking Once Again
Was there a way to enjoy food now that I was alone? Muriel and I subscribed to the New York Times recipe collection. Gravy-stained and scrawled with changes, the recipes remained barely legible enough to follow. Fortunately, I have a calculator and can divide a recipe for five into a meal for one. I would begin cooking again, as I often had when Muriel and I dined at home.
I try not to lament that the meal that takes me ninety minutes to prepare I will finish eating in thirty.
My mother was a great cook and when my brother and I were very young, she summoned us to the kitchen, saying "Your father knows this is a kitchen only because he eats here. You boys are going to learn how to cook." And she taught us. I cook mindfully, losing myself in the sounds and aromas of bubbling soups and sauces. I try not to lament that the meal that takes me ninety minutes to prepare I will finish eating in thirty.
As the months become years since I lost Muriel, I find it easier to eat dinner alone. Cooking is not a chore. I remember my mother's smile when she came to dinner at my brother's home or mine and admired one of the dishes she had taught us to cook when we were little boys.
I do go out to dinner two, sometimes three, evenings a week with the same close friends whose early invitations kept loneliness at bay. Does loneliness still come to my home? Yes, but now only for an occasional assault and knows it is not welcome at my dinner table.