Barbara is in three weeks of rehab for double knee replacement, so I’m living alone, and learning how to batch it. Take for instance toilet hygiene. I flush, reasoning that if you flush, you never have to clean the bowl, a practice that works pretty well for the first week or so. Besides, if anyone comes over and asks to use the bathroom I can just say, “Go use your own.”
I visit Barbara daily, but when I come home, I face something new—an empty, echoing house. For the first time in 45 years I wonder, How do I do this? How does anybody do single well?
I’m sure the great saints would welcome such vast caverns of space and time for prayer, meditation, or Scripture study. I try a little of that, but it’s not like I don’t have stuff to do—checking email and Facebook, watching TV, reading, Sudoku, playing computer chess…. Did I mention checking email and Facebook?
Some, but not much, of my free time fills with domestic tasks—housecleaning, laundry, grocery shopping, cooking.
I never understood the big deal about housecleaning. You kind of let the appliances do the work, don’t you? I dust only what I see (I haven’t seen any yet), but to be safe, I plan to vacuum before Barbara comes home. It won’t make any difference, but she’ll be so happy. The sinks in the bathroom are getting kind of gnarly, so I put some liquid soap on a paper towel and rub the basin with it to get off the brown stains. It is a mystery to me how the large sink mirror becomes spotted and smudged. I stand away from it, and even brush my teeth away from the mirror, but it still spots. So I will unspot it before Barbara returns.
And then there’s laundry. I discover the miracle of multiplication and division—if you wear clothes twice as long, you only have to wash them half as often. For two weeks, I have avoided laundry altogether. But eventually, I call Barbara for washer-dryer instructions. She tells me, “Set the washer on normal load, medium temperature, ten-minute wash, cold rinse. Use Bounce tissues.”
But in the middle of the wash cycle, I begin to question putting Bounce in the washer, so I pull out the soggy tissues. She says, “Actually, they go in the dryer. And be sure to air-dry your shirts so they won’t wrinkle.”
Two prickly rubber balls go in the dryer to reduce static cling. I forget to take out the shirts out early. But hey, if you wear a shirt long enough, the wrinkles sort of come out by themselves. Or not. Anyway, you can always wear a sweater or a coat. Your friends will understand.
Getting enough to eat
Laundry can be postponed, but food is very daily. So I go grocery shopping. When Barbara shops, she labors under many constraints. She reads all the labels, buys organic, grass-fed, free range, low fatand, if possible, rain forest certified. No high-fructose corn syrup, limited sugar content, no additives. And then there are the coupons and discounts—I realize our menu, like our wardrobe, is driven by what’s on sale. She’ll drive ten miles to use a fifty-cent coupon.
This is the same woman who scavenged used carrots. When I was in graduate school we had almost no income, and the kids were young teenagers. Barbara would wait until dark to take the whole family out to the sod farm where the green grocers had thrown out their imperfect carrots. I would keep the engine running, shine the car lights out over the field, and Barbara would run out and stuff carrots into her cloth bag. The three kids would bend over so their friends wouldn’t see them.
We usually made tortillas ourselves with masa and water, then stomped on a cutting board to smoosh them flat. But one day, Barbara surprised us with store-bought taco shells. What a treat!
“Where did you get those?”
“Oh, at a garage sale. But look; they’re all wrapped up and everything.” I praised her ingenuity.
Now that we’re living in Minnesota, Barbara buys certain foods at Aldi’s, the place you rent a cart for a quarter and get it refunded when you’re done. She goes to Mike’s, the green grocer, who sells what I call “used vegetables”— past their expiration dates, but cheap. (She once got “used” blueberries for two dollars a crate.) Also, she shops at Fresh and Natural, where she buys organic and grass-fed meats.
I ignore all the coupons, multiple stores, labels-reading, organic, and limit myself to Cub and Aldi’s. I wander the grocery aisles searching for any randon woman pushing her shopping cart, and ask her, “Do you know where the gluten-free bread is?” I buy some bread, some canned tropical fruit, a couple of avocadoes, celery, two baking potatoes, a pack of frozen peas, and of course, Dove milk chocolate bars with almonds. I briefly consider the healthier, dark chocolate, but why buy candy that doesn’t taste good? Besides, I can just eat twice as much milk chocolate to make up for it. For protein, I buy a six-pack of frozen Angus burgers (pricy, but delicious, and easy to prepare) and a pound of shrimp (it says “cooked, deveined”). I pass on the leafy green vegetables (spinach, broccoli, lettuce), reasoning that Barbara buys so much of this stuff that I probably need to detoxify. I tell Barbara, “I totally get the food-group thing; it’s just that I honor different groups.”
I’ve carefully avoided cooking all my life. In college, I lived in the dorms and ate institutional food. When I was flying with Mission Aviation Fellowship in Chiapas, Mexico, I lived in boarding houses. I would sit in the warm kitchen and watch the cooks scrape the uneaten refried beans back into the pot. In Honduras, a maid cooked and cleaned for me. She was good—once she discovered trichinosis worms in some pork. In Costa Rica, I contracted for room and board in a Costa Rican home.
When I moved to Venezuela, I faced a small crisis—no cook. So I would go to the deli and buy a loaf of bread, a ham loaf, and a big block of cheese, and have them slice them all up. I would buy tomatoes and onions twice a week, and combine all this into sandwiches. Every day. Sometimes I cooked rice, and if it burned, I enjoyed the quemado—that wonderful, crunchy crust sticking to the bottom of the pan. Life was simple. Then Barbara moved in with me and life got more complicated—but I never cooked again.
Now here I am 45 years later, isolated in my necessary solitude, where I’m forced either to starve, or to rely on my own ingenuity. I develop a helpful, daily routine:
- Open the fridge.
- See what’s about to rot.
- Eat it.
- Repeat next day.
Even though Barbara has left a full refrigerator and freezer, I’m forced to do a little cooking. I call friends with questions: “How long can I keep stuff in the refrigerator before it rots?” “How can I tell when hamburger’s going bad?” “Is it better to refrigerate stuff raw, or cook it first?” “Can I freeze raw carrots?”
When I try making Shrimp Alfredo, I only have to call Barbara twice. She says, “Stir-fry the onions, mushrooms, and shrimp, then pour in the Alfredo sauce. Cook the rice separately.” (I remember the breakthrough day, long ago, when I learned the stovetop burners had more settings than “high” and “off.”) This great dish lasted for three evenings, but I forgot to take the shrimp tails off, so I have to spit them out as I eat.
I discover if you eat two foods per meal instead of four, you only have half the dirty dishes. Even better, if you scoop the stuff out of the pan and put it on a napkin, you don’t have to wash any dishes at all. I feel freedom loading the dishwasher without anyone suggesting a better way to stack the dishes.
Some of the larger plates and casserole dishes in the fridge are not ours. Zealous women, both single and married, have formed a line at my door with cooked food—vegetable soup, beef stew, chicken casserole—resupplying my stores faster than I can eat them. They assume I am totally incapacitated without Barbara and ask, “Are you sure you’re getting enough to eat, Jim? What can I do for you?” They clearly are more concerned about me than about Barbara and her knees. So, what with all these meals, I only go out to eat once (Taco Bell, with a Dairy Queen chaser) and I cook only once (the shrimp).
These dear women bring Barbara flowers, and lots of candy. I confiscate the latter, reasoning that eating chocolate might impede her recovery. I take it home and eat it all before she returns. It’s the least I can do for her.
All these women are part of our social network, which Barbara has activated and maintained with her hosting, visiting, telephoning, and sending cards. When we would go to friends for dinner, Barbara always took something along. Now, when I get invited, I stop at Cub to buy a bouquet of flowers. Or I may take something frozen from the freezer.
* * *
I have friends, male and female, who do single well, including hosting amazing dinners for multiple guests. They have all my respect. But after my three weeks of batching it, I don’t know how they do it.
I accommodate the house for Barbara’s return, obtaining a walker, shower seat, and cane. I myself install grab bars on the ceramic-tile walls in the shower to give her added safety. I am now ready for her return! (I wonder if I should clean the toilet bowls? Nah…. )
I can’t wait to say, “Welcome home, Barbara!”