What it’s like to live alone for the first time at 83
After novelist Anne Bernays lost her husband, she discovered the pleasure of never compromising
When my sweet husband, Joe, died after a years-long assault by Parkinson’s disease, I found myself, at the age of 83, living alone for the first time. After our wedding, I had gone straight from my family’s townhouse on the Upper East Side to Joe’s tiny Midtown apartment. We were married for almost 60 years.
After Joe died I felt, alternately, numb and raw, as if the top layer of my skin had been peeled away, leaving me with excruciating pain. I prefer the numbness. After thirteen months of this anguish, I’m slowly beginning to unearth my old, cheerful, energized, opinionated self. I live in two distinct universes: The first is living without Joe (unspeakable), and the second is living by myself — which, I have to admit, has its liberating moments.
Imagine 22,000 breakfasts looking at the same face across the orange juice. Joe was always good company, funny, never tedious or solipsistic. Both of us spent hours a day writing: he most of the time, I when the children were at school. He didn’t go to an office like other fathers. We took all our meals together; his idea of a break was to go with me to the supermarket. We also wrote two nonfiction books together, hardly a simple undertaking.
So his absence has made this the most terrifying period of my life. Sometimes, when self-pity takes over, I calculate that my emotional dislocation now is in direct proportion to how comfortable our marriage was. Over the months, the pain has eased a little. But I’m still confused: Who am I? Am I a widow, a doleful label that, as far as I’m concerned, has nothing to recommend it? Or am I Anne, who grew up rich, hung out with many of the most notable writers of the 1950s, had a career in publishing, wrote 10 novels, co-wrote three nonfiction books and now teaches Nieman fellows at Harvard how to exercise their imaginations? I’ve had fun!
Of course, I miss my husband terribly and cannot look at his shoes in the closet we shared without crying. Still, there are times when I can see a future of new experiences. I can, for example, do things that used to be Joe’s jobs. No matter how many times I asked him, he was reluctant to let me share work that had to do with money. I kept saying: “What if you get hit by a bus?” But it didn’t seem to make any difference. He paid the bills, dealt with our accountant, kept track of our modest investments and, in general, was keeper of the purse.
He also did everything involving our wheels: getting our parking permit, paying the excise tax, renewing the registration, rejoining AAA and so on. I do these things now, often withmy pulse speeding up unpleasantly. But I do them, along with my oldest daughter, Susanna, who’s helping me navigate the wilds of bills, recordkeeping and taxpaying. She claims to be holding the feds at bay.
Her two younger sisters, Hester, who lives an hour away, and Polly, who lives in Dutchess County, N.Y., are also super-daughters. They have my back. They keep an eye on me via phone and, more often, text messages, e-mail and cellphone pictures. They take me out for lunch and to the movies. They give me advice, recipes and gifts, but it’s their concern and love that count the most. These three women make it easier formeto come to terms with the fact that I’ll never see Joe again.
I live in a light, airy apartment with a stunning view of the Charles River and the Boston skyline. We moved there from the other side of Cambridge a year and a half before Joe died, sparing our children the task of emptying a too-large house where we had lived since leaving New York in 1959. Still, being alone is the emptiness and sadness of clothes unworn in more than a year, of a refrigerator stocked according to the appetite and taste of only one, of the silent darkness of insomnia.
But here’s the lighter side of living alone: I can do anything I want, when I want, how I want. I can go to bed without worrying about Joe, who was sicker than I recognized, mainly because he never complained.
The first line of a poem I have yet to complete goes: “Who would exchange worry for grief?” Well, actually, I would. But I no longer have to worry about whether or not he swallowed his daily ration of 17 pills; about that funny rash on his head; about his next doctor’s appointment; about why he had fallen in the kitchen again. What’s taken the place of worry? Food. It’s amazing how much food and its purchase figure in my life. When I’m feeling especially blue, I don’t light the stove at all. Instead, I heat up half a bag of “Oriental-style” vegetables in the microwave. When I’m okay, I’ll fry tofu cut into cubes or a lamb shoulder chop or a Cornish game hen marinated in something called Soy Vay. I buy four-ounce packages of smoked salmon and ration each one to last a week of breakfasts.
I eat things Joe didn’t like: frozen yogurt, black bread, cheddar-flavored pretzels, readymade chicken salad in a plastic container. And I avoid things he liked and I didn’t: Jell-O, oatmeal, Vienna sausages (yuck!), canned corned-beef hash, any kind of tomato, canned soup loaded with sodium, lemons.
I eat breakfast while reading the New York Times on paper and lunch while surfing my MacBook Pro. ( When Joe was alive, my computer stayed shut until the meal was over.)
The best part of the day is cocktail hour. I sit onmy 1950s Scandinavian style couch with a vodka martini in a fancy glass, reading the Times (of London) Literary Supplement. This hour melds with barely a ripple into supper, which I eat still facing the tube; it may last an hour or so, sometimes starting with half an avocado eaten off the blade of a knife. Whenever I like to, I cook. Otherwise it’s a bit of this, a bit of that — crackers and cheese, a small salad — whatever catches my fancy. When Joe sat across from me at the table, however, we always had a proper 1950s-style meal: meat, a vegetable and something starchy. I gave up this antiquated habit without the least regret.
I have friends to walk with, e-mail and text with — and an older sister who lives nearby. I guess I’m still in mourning because I’m reluctant to go out at night. Once a genuine party girl, I often prefer to stay home alone, protecting myself from anxiety, a state that has a nasty habit of appearing just when I crave serenity.
Do I have a message for other women who find themselves, at an advanced age, living alone, maybe for the first time? Not really. I could say that time heals all wounds— or time wounds all heels, as Joe would have it. I could talk about the restorative benefits of family and friends, and about the resilience of the human spirit. But that’s not my style.
I would tell them instead: Don’t let your woes swamp other people. Get plenty of exercise. And make sure you have enough ice on hand for that 6 o’clock cocktail.
Anne Bernays, who recently lost her husband of 60 years, pictured in the apartment they shared. Her advice to older women who find themselves living alone: Exercise, and enjoy cocktail hour.