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 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.