The Richness of Empty Evenings

I had this huge hole where dinnertime used to be, this gaping Grand Canyon in which nothing was expected of me. Good Lord, what was I supposed to do?

by Jenny Allen
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Photograph: Shutterstock.com

I live alone. These things happen. Your children grow up, your husband leaves, and then you are a household of one. This is a happy story, I promise, but I do need to say this: Get ready, ladies. You may be next. And if and when you are, please, please try to remember what I am telling you now. You know how you never have enough time? You will have it. The very thing, that precious, out-of-reach, gleaming pot of gold you have been longing for! You will even have time on your hands. If you are wise, you will see it as a gift. If you are like me, you will have to do some stumbling around to get there.

Like so much in life, this story is about dinner. Dinner was how I spent almost 30 years of my life—making dinner, serving dinner and eating dinner with my family. Slipping chopped carrots into the meat loaf so that vegetables would be represented in the meal. Guiding dinner table conversation so that it yielded something loftier than burp jokes. And then, after dinner, overseeing homework, making sure children went to bed at a decent hour. It was the life I had chosen, and I think I was good at it, and most of the time I loved it. So when this ritual ended, I was totally unprepared for the expanse of time it left behind. With a few exceptions, I hadn’t spent an evening alone since my twenties. And now I had this huge hole where dinnertime used to be, this gaping Grand Canyon in which nothing was expected of me. Good Lord, what was I supposed to do?

At first, I couldn’t shake the feeling, hardwired after all those years, that I should be home. The light would fade at dusk, and I’d think, I’m supposed to be home; I’d better get home before dark. I missed my children and wondered what they were having for dinner. They didn’t ever call me to say, “Oh, Mommy, I really miss your dinners.” I wondered, petulantly, why I hadn’t just ordered takeout all those years, and I regretted every judgmental thought I’d had about mothers who’d done exactly that.

But even as I felt sorry for myself, I began to experience little thrills of freedom. When I remembered I had no reason to go home, I’d go to the movies instead, or to my favorite coffee shop for supper, and feel the way I imagine astronauts feel when they’re weightless, floating out in space. I realized I had the thing that people, including me, constantly complain that they have none of: time. For decades, when a friend would call me on the phone in the evening and ask, “Do you have a minute?” I’d think, No, actually, I don’t. Later tonight I may have a minute, after I finish dinner and get my children to bed, but I hope to be sleeping by then.

And now I had a minute. I had many minutes, entire evenings of minutes. I started to think of having time not as something to feel strange about but as a kind of gift that had been dropped in my lap. It seemed unbecoming, as my mother would say, not to enjoy the very thing I’d been longing for all these years. It seemed kind of asinine, in fact.

I made myself call friends I hadn’t seen in so long, I’d forgotten the names of their children and husbands. “Is everything all right?” one college friend asked. “Did somebody die?” Some of them had gotten divorced or remarried since I’d seen them, some had had cancer and recovered, and I felt terrible that I hadn’t known, but not one of them made me feel worse about it. I made dates to meet them for coffee and looked at pictures of their now-grown children on their cell phones and told them about mine. I visited friends who’d had operations and were stuck in bed. I tried to show up for people.

For many weeks I acted in a play, and after each performance I’d walk for a half hour or so before getting on the subway home. I loved those walks—decompressing, thinking about how the show went, feeling the freshness of the air after being in a closed theater for hours.

Originally published in the April 2012 issue

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