Mary's Farm: Orphan Holidays
In this poignant, heartwarming special edition of “Mary’s Farm,” Edie Clark reflects on the powers of cooking and friendship.
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.