AS THE YOUNG COUPLE beneath the banyan trees of Hilo's Liliuokalani Gardens pledged their troths to one another, I though again about Elizabeth Mooney's book. It has filled my mind between Chicago and Hawaii with thoughts of what Saul Bellow in Herzog kept calling "reality instruction."
Here these two shining youths (one of them, my college-student son) were undertaking marriage -- and soon parenthood -- with little more than romantic preparation for what lie ahead. It's one of the big ideas lurking beneath the surface of Alone: you're never really ready for the heavy experiences in life. They're not taught in college, and society disguises them with rituals.
Experience didn't and couldn't prepare Elizabeth Mooney for the death of her husband and life alone at the age of 58. Indeed, nearly all of the crucial events of a lifetime -- marriage, the birth of a child, the departure of children, divorce or the death of a spouse -- are events of self-education. They are the experiences that Robert Frost said you cannot go around; you must go through. Thus we seek out and develop ourselves in memoirs of passage like Alone . Herman Heese's metaphore for life was a journey. We turn to literature for maps because most oral instructions are garbled.
Not that Elizabeth Mooney's book is a guide to living alone. Rather it's a journal of self-discovery. And like much of art, it tells us what we knew but what we may have forgotten we knew. We are locked inside ourselves. We must look to ourselves for continuity.
Right now there are some 17 million adult Americans living along. One out of every five households has only one member. So it is not a unique story that Mooney has to tell. What is remarkable about it is the intimacy of the telling. We are there. We become Elizabeth Mooney. We feel her terror at night and suffer her despair the next day. We become unraveled with her.
For 30 years Elizabeth Mooney did what conventional wisdom said upper-middle-class American women do. She stayed married to the man she loved, Booth. She kept house, served as den mother, put the Christmas tree ornaments away each January, and pointed Ted and Joan in the direction of honesty and Ivy League colleges. Then one day Booth callapsed in their kitchen, blood gushing from his mouth. He died in her arms. Cigarettes killed him with cancer. The children were liberated. She was alone with their dog Frieda, a crippled bank account, no work experience except news reporting as a young woman. She was approaching 60.
At first, there was unreality: "You know he is dead, but you don't believe it. A part of you can't really accept the fact that he isn't just away on a trip and will be calling to say he'll make the late plane . . . Asleep or awake I had trouble believing it. Night after night I woke alone in bed, staring at the ceiling and wondering bleakly where he was . . . When I slept, I dreamed repeatedly that we were to meet on a train platform and though Ihad caught a glimpse of him earlier, coat over his arm, he didn't appear at the rendezvous. Nightly I got on that train hoping he had boarded earlier, and nightly it pulled out without him."
Soon enough she believed Booth was dead. Taxes, groceries, car bills, and social erosion as she learned that it's a coupled world convinced Elizabeth she was indeed alone, if not always lonely.
Part of the worst was having no one with whom to talk out the grievous event: "Death in our time has been reduced to a regrettable but brief incident which doesn't bear talking about," she says. "Nobody to whom it has not happened can possibly understand you need to relieve what has happened until you can exorcise it. The last thing that occurs to friends is that you can even want to think about it again."
Another kind of communication loss was "perhaps the worst deprivation of all," she says. "Terrible things, funny things, strange things happen to you all day, and you want to save them up to tell to somebody. For a whole week, in that strange aftermath of Booth's death, I wrote down things I would have told him, as if he were just away and we would catch up later, and I mustn't forget to tell him . . . Things like the fact that they were building on the vacant lot where the wild aster grew. Or that I had seen a cat run over . . . I wanted somebody to say how awful for me, what was I planning for dinner, overlay it all with a sense of the world going on in spite of this." (By this time she had acquired a pup named Katie to keep Frieda company.) "I told the dogs. When you are talking to dogs, it doesn't count as talking to yourself."
Being alone gets worse and then better. But it doesn't go away. Over a period of three years -- the time covered in Alone, aside from wistful reveries -- Elizabeth Mooney copes with aloneness even though she cannot embrace it.
She finds other widows, giving parties, goes places. Her daughter comes home and leaves, proving that a nest is for flying from. She lands and loses a part-time copywriting job, learning that performance may not prevail over personality. She works for a charmingly aristocratic sex researcher who lectures her on the elegance of the erotic, but it doesn't take. A few months after joining the staff of a struggling ecology magazine, Mooney feels something approaching romance with her brooding, Lincolnesque editor. But the relationship is derailed during a weekend at a New England inn. She cannot move beyond friendship.
"Maybe he took part of me with him that's essential" she tells Evan, trying to cry. "Of course I love you. Anybody who knows you would love you . . . But I can't seem to want anything more . . . I don't know what I want."
Part of the urgency of Elizabeth Mooney's book is because there are thousands of versions of this story and perhaps every other story in Alone. She starts them. We can finish them because we've lived them.
What confirms the vitality of her work, however, is the surprising range of social as well as personal observation, and her formidable literary skills.
Looking back, she sees the opportunities for women to grow but not taken during World War II. She notices that things -- sterling silver, Empire furniture, houses -- become important to us because during a life they change from commodities to roots to your past. Animals count because "everyone needs love, and when the two-legged love is beyond your reach, four-legged love is the next-best thing." She suggests that the process of aging is learning to get alone with less (yes, I was losing a son during the marriage ceremony in Hawaii), and this is why work becomes central. It fills holes.
Mrs. Mooney occasionally loses grip on her writing. She crosses too many Rubicons, feels wagons circling in defense, and tells us a friend would not admit loneliness "if every single one of his fingernails was pulled off one by one." But the most constant quality of her writing isn't cliche or hyperbole. It's the immediacy of human emotion and will:
"The light is long at the crosstown intersection that takes me home, and I had tome to think. I was remembering the house we were going home to when it was full of people coming home and sitting down for dinner and telling each other what happened to them all day. And I thought about what had happened since then, leaving me beached like a shipwreck on the sand, and what I had learned along the way. And in spite of the part of me I had just left behind, I knew that it was true that I would be all right. Maybe not happy, but all right."