In 1981, in the midst of writing my very first book, “Entertaining,” with deadlines pressuring me, I sent my husband and daughter off to the Rockies for the Christmas holidays. They were meant to go from fabulous resort to fabulous resort to ski and frolic while I, in my dutiful fashion, would stay home on Turkey Hill and complete writing text and testing recipes. This was the first Christmas in my entire life that I had ever even considered spending all by myself, and I must confess that the decision was absolutely one of the worst I have ever made.
Alexis and Andy took off for Utah a couple of days before the twenty-fifth. As I packed their bags, I started feeling depressed, wondering why, during my favorite holiday season, I was dedicating myself to work. We had put up a tree, and Alexis and I had constructed a giant gingerbread house, but none of that seemed as important as being together on Christmas Day.
I can’t remember if I drove them to the airport, but I must have. By driving to the airport I would not have to sit at my table and write. During the next ten miserable days I became a master at what we all know as procrastination, or dragging one’s feet, or letting things slide, or stalling. I, who like to believe I am the most disciplined worker of them all, the master of deadlines, the early bird, learned every trick of the dawdler, the laggard, the lie-abed.
As I gradually shed my mantle of discipline, I picked up traits I had previously despised in others. I moved from our bedroom to the guest room, where there was a TV that could be viewed from the bed. I had never stayed in bed past 6 a.m. -- my animals demanded their early-morning rituals of feeding and walking, and I had never even thought of altering their schedules. But suddenly the dog was being walked when I was ready to go outdoors, I didn’t rush to freshen the cat litter, and the chickens could wait until later in the morning for their change of water and breakfast of cracked corn.
I became a putterer. I shuffled around in heavy woolen socks and my nightgown, dusting the edges of tables with the hem of my flannel nightdress, as I had done as a child. I turned on the TV and watched daytime programs that I had never heard of before. I never did get to watch a soap opera, but only because by that time of day I was dressed and out of the house. These adventures outdoors were only visits to friends, who I’m sure wondered how I was writing while sitting around their family tree sipping tea and nibbling cookies.
At home I invented chores that kept me from my desk. I washed every mirror and cleaned the intricate giltwork with cotton swabs. I set up my ironing board next to my four-poster bed, and after I washed all my linen napkins, even the clean ones, I ironed them while watching old movies on TV all through the night. I talked more on the telephone to everyone I could think of than I had ever talked on the telephone before.
I cleaned out all the closets, making neat piles of clothes to rearrange or launder. I made piles of yeast doughs to test bread recipes and then forgot about them; some overrose, onto the kitchen counters. My wonderful eating habits quickly transformed into those of a recluse. I ate liverwurst out of the tube, cottage cheese straight from the container, and peanut butter and jelly right from the jar.
I did not once get to my desk, where my work was neatly arranged for solitary, uninterrupted, quiet progress. And very worst of all, I cried every day that I was home alone, without my family.
Out West, Alexis and her father were having their own crises -- a blizzard had stranded them far from the ski slopes, and Alexis, 15, had to sleep in the bathtub of the only motel room they could find. When they finally reached the resort, the blizzard continued, curtailing their skiing. They also ended up watching TV and sleeping too much.
Well, I did learn my lesson. I have never opted to spend a holiday by myself again. And if I must be alone again for Christmas someday, I will try very hard to amuse myself in a much more pleasurable and useful fashion. Maybe a spa? Maybe a tennis camp? But never, never alone again.