My Gramma Esther was an interesting woman of her time. In the 1940s and ’50s, she not only could set a table with the finest china, she also could back a boat trailer into a lake, unload it and fish the day away.

I was thinking about her as I wondered about my own love of being alone. Such a curiosity for someone whose life work has involved teaching children in classrooms where they come in multiples of five or 10, depending on the overcrowding at the given moment in a public school. But I do love being alone.

I used to wander the back woods of Wright County by myself, peeking into abandoned farmhouses and old sand pits. I think if my mother had really known how far afield I went, she would have forbidden it. But I loved to walk, to be one with the woods, to be alone.

I used to watch my children play alone. They had a prodigious ability to entertain themselves if given the proper setting and items. Pots, pans, spoons, Legos, sand, water, paints, paper. Literally, for hours. Alone and encountering their world. With their eyes, not mine. Pursuing their curiosity to its finale, not mine. Was that the stage that set their paths as young adults, people who can be off and separate from their parents with confidence?

My own mother was rarely alone, but after a scary marriage, she never remarried and made only faint attempts to find a partner. Unusual for that time. On this day of dating sites, being alone seems inconceivable. The only American way is to partner up. Part of her must have liked it. Independent, able to consider only her opinion when decisions were made. Hmm — sounds easy!

When I’m alone, I’m sometimes scared. Night noises loom. I lock the doors and windows on the ground floor. Thoughts run wild and unfettered. Summer storms set my heart racing as I wonder about just how severe the clout will be. I worry about illness, and about family members and friends. I ruminate on mistakes and lost friends and unfair slights that have been applied to me. It’s just me; I have to figure it out, or end the fear or unloop the rumination without help.

We are separate. As much as we humans like to connect and bond, we need to know what it is to unconnect and unbond. To walk away from danger and not toward. To walk into the next life and not grip too tightly when the time comes.

After being alone, I am knit back together. The parts that have been divvied and divided among 30 to 35 children a year — and among family members and friends and neighbors — coalesce into one whole person again. Divided and separated, united and whole — it’s the work of the woods and a summer and the outdoors. Free from walls and the square screen that constricts thinking. The demands of the many reduced to the needs of one.

I see why Esther — farm girl, cook, fisherwoman, friend, parent — took her beloved Lund boat out to the lakes around St. Cloud, backed up her trailer and fished alone. She cleaned her catch, brought it home and cooked for the many: her family, her neighbors, herself. I see my connection to her and my mirroring of her wisdom. Passed down to me like a chef passes down the secret sauce — the secret of being alone.

 

Kris Potter lives in Minneapolis.