Charles is arriving tomorrow, staying through New Year’s, and we have a number of social events and outings planned. So I won’t be deprived of festivities this season. But I’ve been alone, no work or social events, since last weekend and it’s been not exactly unpleasant— but solitude, even a gentle solitude, as it piles up has a certain devastating quality, the scent of annihilation.
It’s made me think about Christmases in my mother’s house when I was in my early 20’s. My stepchildren were still children, and adorable ones at that, sweet but not overly good; you could always count on the boys to find the BB guns, play with matches or spy on the adults’ bedrooms, and the girls to do things I still don’t know about because girls are sneakier. My mother was a vibrant and sexy Santa Claus/hostess, and for a while my sister brought home a new man every year, which made for a bit of drama. I liked it all: my sweetheart, his children, my mother’s and sister’s romances. I relished everything to do with love, including jealousy, secrets, fights and tears. I wasn’t afraid of love! What an innocent! And there was nothing worse. There was no hatred or real grief, no illness or poverty in our immediate circle, no political nightmares. Carter was President. Congress wasn’t synonymous with Remedial Evil in Hell. I believed in my glorious future. The Atlantic Ocean was right outside the door.
Outside my door now is a carpet cleaned daily but still pregnant with odors of interest to the cats. I only let them out after midnight, but they’re not good with time and clamor for adventure in the afternoon. “Non, mon cheres!’ I say. “Vous sont tres petite et peur.” In the wee hours we take a stroll together past all the locked doors, the felines walking with exaggerated care, looking around like actors in a silent movie. They stop to sniff every threshold, while I speak softly in my cat-mommy voice, about which I feel no shame, because I know that animals, like babies, respond greatly to the tone of voice adults think of as silly and sugary. They don’t even mind my French. Perhaps animals respond even more than babies. Dogs certainly do; cats are just a little less likely to show their gratitude with fresh slobber. But they do show it. If you want to know true intimacy with a cat, live in an apartment and spend most of your days and nights alone.
Is it worth it? That’s not the right question. My isolation has never been as simple as a choice, although it’s also a choice. Free will, as they say, may be a lie, but we disbelieve in it to our peril. There are compensations, though, for the lack of human hubbub. My cats never complain about my habits. When my moods disturb them they say so simply rather than uttering pieties about how I need help, or threatening to leave. They never leave. And they’re beautiful and smell like chocolate.
When I am in the Kitchen
I think about the past. I empty the ice-cube trays
crack crack cracking like bones, and I think
of decades of ice cubes and of John Cheever,
of Anne Sexton making cocktails, of decades
of cocktail parties, and it feels suddenly far
too lonely at my counter. Although I have on hooks
nearby the embroidered apron of my friend’s
grandmother and one my mother made for me
for Christmas 30 years ago with gingham I had
coveted through my childhood. In my kitchen
I wield my great aunt’s sturdy black-handled
soup ladle and spatula, and when I pull out
the drawer, like one in a morgue, I visit
the silverware of my husband’s grandparents.
We never met, but I place this in my mouth
every day and keep it polished out of duty.
In the cabinets I find my godmother’s
teapot, my mother’s Cambridge glass goblets,
my mother-in-law’s Franciscan plates, and here
is the cutting board my first husband parqueted
and two potholders I wove in grade school.
Oh the past is too much with me in the kitchen,
where I open the vintage metal recipe box,
robin’s egg blue in its interior, to uncover
the card for Waffles, writ in my father’s hand
reaching out from the grave to guide me
from the beginning, “sift and mix dry ingredients”
with his note that this makes “3 waffles in our
large pan” and around that our an unbearable
round stain—of egg yolk or melted butter?—
that once defined a world.
–Jean Marie Beaumont