Solitude and good company

Friends Dave and Jill Kern met the barn cat when we visited Lopez Island’s Horse Drawn Farm last week.

I HAVEN’T LIVED ALONE since I had my crummy little apartment connected to the beauty parlor on 10th Street in Mount Vernon. It became a much nicer apartment when Barbara moved in after we married in December 1979. We were there together for only a few months before our first cat, Bing, adopted us by coming to our door and meowing as if the building was on fire, then marching right in like he owned the place. Suddenly we had a Maine Coon kitten. We became cat people by default.

But we were soon willing to face eviction for Bing, since the crummy apartment’s landlord didn’t allow pets (could they make the place crummier?). Called on the (threadbare) carpet, we moved to a larger, newer apartment a mile or so away. I would describe it as, um, crappy.

We loved the Skagit Valley, and my young spouse worked two jobs to supplement the pittance I made as news editor of the local weekly. But ultimately our relative poverty and the quality of our apartment living had a lot to do with my decision to go to graduate school, hoping to improve our lot in life.

So 40 years ago this autumn Barbara and I moved to Chicago, a place she would badmouth with gusto until just about her dying day. Much of that had to do with my leaving her there on her own winter quarter when I went away to take part in Medill School of Journalism’s Washington, D.C., program. She couldn’t accompany me; her job at the Northwestern University library was paying our bills. She called it her PHT (Putting Him Through) degree.

Of course, Chicago produced a record-cold winter, and she had to trudge to work with a six-foot woolen scarf wrapped entirely around her head. For years, it made for a funny story to share with friends over a glass or three of good wine. But she never forgave me.

Throughout our 41 years of marriage, that was the longest period that we were separated. Until last April. It’s been six months since she died in the Nuthatch Cabin’s front room.

Now it’s October. I live on a small, isolated island. Wind and rain have chased most neighbors to the mainland for the winter.

Solitude doesn’t suit me the way it does some. After living with my best friend for 41 years, I guess that makes sense. “How are you doing?” people ask. I know they mean “without her.”

The answer is, I’m coping, more or less. I get out of bed every day. I exercise. I read, I write, I cook. I run to the top of the rocky knoll with Galley Cat, who is my little ginger-colored bundle of joy (who only occasionally bites if I pet her too hard).

So I’m not entirely alone. I say good morning every day to Barbara’s photo, the sexy, come-hither image she mailed me when I was 18 and gone to Florida for college. On the back of the black-and-white print that she made in her own darkroom is penciled “Hey, Sailor!” Her distinctive, curlicued script can bring me a smile or a tear, depending on the mood.

I’m not alone, though. I’ve got the feline housemate, who is a bit of a bed pig. I have the birds who are mobbing the feeder this time of year, perhaps presaging the La Niña winter we’re being warned about. Nuthatches and Chickadees go back and forth as fast as their flappy little wings will carry them, caching hundreds of sunflower seeds in the wrinkly bark of my big Doug firs. Or there is the oversized Hairy Woodpecker swinging from the suet cages like a fat teenager trying out the playground’s baby swings.

A Northern Flicker came to visit, dressed in his finery.

A pretty Northern Flicker joined the crowd the other day. We get them once in a while. They always remind me of an English lord in a morning coat and spotted silk vest.

I Skype nightly with my loving daughter. And friends and loved ones visit. Last week old friends Dave and Jill Kern, whom Barbara and I knew in our Vancouver, Wash., days, came up and stayed a couple nights on Lopez Island. We toured Lopez together and I brought them out on WeLike for grilled burgers at the cabin. Dave, a treasured colleague of mine at The Columbian newspaper, is in his 70s now. My favorite memory was his 40th birthday, when Barbara and I rented a big Lincoln and took Dave and Jill to dinner at Nick’s, a famed Italian bistro in Willamette Valley wine country, west of Portland. Since we then considered 40 to be essentially life’s end, on the homeward drive I played and replayed a cassette tape of rocker Barry McGuire’s fatalistic Cold War anthem, “Eve of Destruction.” It rocked the Town Car with the stereo turned on “stun.”

Company is good, along with fun memories. Solitude, I’m forced to cope with.

4 thoughts on “Solitude and good company

  1. memories,keepsakes and the lust for life , will win the day .Routine and boat maintenance are the Gods way ,of telling us we have a purpose .As long as we live ,the people we love are never forgotten . Perhaps its time to think about writing a Biography of Brian Cantwell ? a particularly interesting and captivating life story ! And then there is the world of model airplanes ,you have a great runway and rubber band powered airplanes are beckoning . My thoughts are with you ,.we will meet our loved ones again ,but not for a while .,adventures can still be found .Be at peace my friend .

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  2. Hi Brian, Another excellent piece of writing and you captured your life well. Solitude is a state of being I have thought about recently as I had a reader of the blog write and tell me that she is a single woman, thinking of moving to Greece and she asked if it is a good place for a single woman (I love those kinds of questions). But it did make me think again about the complexities and emotions of being alone. I think I could do it here now that we have a community of friends and a world within which we exist here, but I wonder about my ability (or desire) to just pick up and move myself to a foreign land, knowing no one. It would take some determination for sure to get out and make oneself a part of the community – I am not sure at this age, I would have enough drive or desire to do that, yet if I didn’t, it would be a very solitary experience. Sorry for the ramblings, but I haven’t responded to her yet and maybe I am just trying to focus on what I want to write as an answer.

    A storm, one of a week’s worth that are hitting with extreme intensity and regularity, rages outside. We prepare for olive harvest and hope that they remain on the trees through this so that we have an olive harvest. It is scheduled for Oct. 23, the earliest I think we’ve harvested since our adventure here began.

    I do hope we remain on your bucket list for a future visit. Fall is beautiful as it is harvest time (despite the storms) and spring is lovely. Our friend Chuck, who lost his wife, going on two years ago, is eager to take you on some hikes – he’s our resident hiker/guide to fun places that you can find on hikes. We will stuff you with Greek wine and food and show you the best of the Mani.

    Traveling back from Washington last week was amazingly more simple than going over a month before. Travel is returning to a more normal pace. Keeping our fingers crossed that Covid is soon a time period we remember, not live in!

    Take care. Thinking of you. Jackie

    Sent from Mail for Windows

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  3. Such poignant emotions on these bittersweet days of transition from summer to winter, company to solitude; past spilling into present and present staying in balance with daily tasks, future beckoning with friends and plans. And more cookies. (My diabetic husband sends abundant thanks.)

    Wishing you moments and more of solace and smiles with your feathered and feline mates.

    Hilary

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