The empty house

A husband left alone in his own house may be observed, at first, wandering about the vacant rooms like a being deprived of all contact with reality. His wife has gone off for two weeks to visit a small grandson, let us say, and arrangements have been made for most of the necessities of his domestic existence. The icebox is stocked with frozen dishes; the calendar is reasonably full of engagements, and instructions of various kind have been pinned here and there. Nevertheless he paces the floors and peers into corners like a caged beast dreaming of a jungle haunted by sounds no longer heard.

This husband will get busy after a while doing the chores his wife has left for him - letters to be mailed, packages to be returned, flowers to be watered or brought outdoors. He will cook a few dishes of his own, having long had a secret desire for certain delicacies, and will be surprised when they do not taste as good as he would have expected. Then he will make all sorts of resolutions for cleaning up the house and repairing small items that have been bothering him. But the chores done, the experiments in cooking concluded and the tidying up more or less abandoned, he lets his mind dwell with a touch of self-pity on the joyous times his wife must be experiencing and from which an unkind fate has excluded him.

Shortly his mood passes. Our abandoned husband begins to find certain pleasures in his situation. To be the lord of all he surveys has undoubted compensations, at least for a little while, and he finds himself pursuing unusual schedules, such as getting up at hours his wife would find unusual, or eating late (or even not at all). He discovers in the unaccustomed lack of conversation an excuse for reading. He may even perform prodigies of work, attacking the piles of correspondence which had lain neglected on his desk. Presently he begins to have pleasant anticipations of his wife's return, and lives thenceforth in a happy no man's land between deprivation and renewal.

In the end such a brief period of separation is probably for the good, and it raises questions (appropriate for the season) of the advisability of husband and wife taking their vacations apart. In these days all conceivable forms of living arrangements and family relationships are explored. Fathers take in their daughters (not their sons) as business partners; unmarried couples have one apartment and married ones keep two: it is wonderful the variety of novel things that can be thought of! So there is no reason why new patterns of family vacationing should not be invented. The only trouble is, they would probably turn out to be old patterns - at least as old as the first century BC, when Sextus Propertius first declared that ''absence makes the heart grow fonder.''

I have recently been doing work on the life of Woodrow Wilson, and it is interesting that he and his first wife, Ellen Axson, even in the passionate love of their youth often vacationed separately. In the beginning they were too poor to go off at the same time, or there were the three growing daughters to be cared for. Afterward Ellen declared that she was like the ''fixtures'' in the house and remained attached to the place while her husband bicycled around his beloved England or escaped from the Princeton winters by fleeing to the ''lotus land'' of Bermuda. Woodrow was probably influenced by the fact that his father had vacationed separately, going alone in the summers to Saratoga, where he claimed the waters were beneficial to his health but denied that he found any amusements. This father was a Presbyterian minister, but a jolly one, and it may be presumed he had many a good gossip and even now and then a mild flirtation.

An advantage, at least for posterity, is the fact that such separations promote a correspondence between husband and wife which the ordinary course of life does not call for. Wilson wrote charmingly to Ellen of his days as a wandering cyclist in the Lake Country of England. In other parts of England, he searched out the church where his grandfather had preached, visited the graves of his favorite authors, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Keats, and was altogether entranced with ''touring and life in the open countryside.'' At the end of one such summer (it was in 1896) he could write Ellen: ''I am coming to you like a lover to whom has been revealed the full beauty and sanctity of love - with new devotion, new joy, new passion.''

The rewards of sharing with a loved one novel sights and alien pleasures are not to be overlooked and could be cited at length if the opposite side of the case were being argued. But for the moment I go back to the image of the husband in the empty house - lonely, yet not too lonely, if the truth be told. He has for company his vivid memories and his quick expectations. Is he really to be pitied? He is not even convinced he should be, as he stirs an unfamiliar pot, or returns at nightfall to rooms which in his imagination are not wholly unpeopled.

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