Dick Van Dyke: Keep Moving : And Other Tips and Truths about Aging (Hardcover)(2015)

Sit or Get Off the Pot Roast

As near as I can figure, the history of the pot roast is as plain and basic as the ingredients themselves. It seems to have originated on farms in the 1800s where the cooking was done in large pots dangling over a hearth. A big slab of meat and an assortment of vegetables were tossed in, and everything cooked slowly in natural juice, water, wine, or some kind of stock. Recipes began to appear in cookbooks at the end of the 1800s.

By the early 1900s pot roast was standard fare in homes across America. The 1904 edition of The Modern Cook Book and Household Recipes included a recipe for “Braised Beef Pot Roast”; a similar recipe appeared in the 1937 version of My New Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book. And when André Simon described the roasting of a two-and-a-half-pound rump of beef in his 1952 book, A Concise Encyclopedia of Gastronomy, the pot roast was referred to as “an old Yankee recipe.”

I mention this only because, while doing my research, I did not find instructions anywhere that a pot roast should be delivered weekly to someone who has lost their spouse. But as soon as word got out that Michelle was gone, my family and friends showed their concern by dropping off food. One day I came home and found a large pan of meatloaf on the front porch. Another time it was a baking dish of lasagna. Then someone brought a pot roast. Some dishes were delivered with reheating instructions; others came with a loving note, “Call if you need anything else.” Pretty soon what I needed was more freezer space to store the food.

I like pot roast, meatloaf, and lasagna as much as anyone, maybe even more. As my wife, Arlene, has learned, my taste in food was shaped during my midwestern youth. My favorite meal, for instance, is fried chicken, corn on the cob, and mashed potatoes, followed closely by meatloaf, pot roast, and lasagna. I have never tired of any of these dishes.

But the casseroles friends dropped off and the messages they left, “Dick, it’s me—and I want to come by with some food,” took on a momentum that I couldn’t keep up with. I could only eat so much, and my appetite had disappeared.

Then I realized that the pot roasts were more than considerate goodwill gestures, more than mere precooked meals I could pull out of the refrigerator when I got hungry, more than a favorite recipe intended to help out until I got back into a routine. They were coded messages!

It was as clear as the mozzarella on top of the lasagnas. All these meals were dropped off by women who were also single, many of them widowed themselves; they were letting me know they were out there—and available. It was as if a secret message had been sent to every widowed female of a certain age from Malibu to Beverly Hills: Girls, we have a live one. He’s eighty-three, he’s got all his marbles, and he can still dance. Perfect for the charity circuit. Get your pot roasts ready.

At the gathering that followed Michelle’s service I had jokingly asked all the rich widows to move to one side, a light moment that drew laughter from everyone. But I wasn’t ready for a new relationship. Not then. Not a month later. Not several months later. Writing in the New York Times about his own terminal diagnosis, Dr. Oliver Sacks, one of my favorite authors, noted, at age eighty-one, that the deaths of friends and loved ones leave wounds that don’t heal. “There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever,” he wrote. “When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled.”

That’s the way I felt after losing Michelle. There had not been anyone like her, ever. Certainly not in my life. She had been such a dominant presence. Even as her health declined, she ran things from her bed. The phone rang. I heard her voice. I heard her booming laugh. She wanted dinner—then nothing. Her absence left a giant-sized hole everywhere I turned. Someone asked how I dealt with the grief. I didn’t. I didn’t eat well. I forgot to pay bills. I declined invitations to go out. I fell off the track and didn’t know how to get back to living my life.

I wasn’t alone. Rocky, our wire hair fox terrier, was equally bereft. He searched endlessly for Michelle, and then after a while, he parked himself in front of me with the same look of sadness, loss, and confusion that was on my face. I tossed his toy across the living room, watched him bring it back, and then tossed it again until he grew bored. He might not have understood what had happened to Michelle, but he knew she was gone. I tried to put things in perspective for him.

“At least you don’t have a credit card that’s been canceled,” I said.

That really happened. My card was canceled, and it wasn’t for lack of money to pay the bill; it was because I wasn’t organized enough to find the bill. That was indicative of the way things unraveled. I had to get it together. I wanted to, believe me. I had told myself repeatedly that I did not want to be one of those people who lose a spouse and stop living. I had seen that in others, both men and women, and I never understood why they let their lives change so dramatically. They quit going to shows, they stopped cooking meals for themselves, they slept late, they moved slower, and they turned into virtual shut-ins. Even when they went out, they were closed off. I did not want that to happen to me. I had promised myself it wouldn’t. I had promised Michelle it wouldn’t. We had promised each other.

But it was easier said than done. I had never been single. As I said, I had a steady girlfriend in high school who dumped me after I got back from the Air Force. Then I got married to Margie. Then I was with Michelle. Then it was just Rocky and me in the house. I found myself apologizing to him. I promised to change.

I said yes when Gregory Peck’s wonderful wife, Veronique, invited me to lunch at a restaurant in Beverly Hills and introduced me to a woman she thought I might like. We had a nice time, but she wasn’t my cup of tea. The same thing happened with several other friends who tried to set me up.

Then word got out that I was dating, and my popularity skyrocketed. One woman waited for me every morning in my local coffee shop. She was like a well-intentioned stalker with a nice wardrobe. My phone rang constantly.

I went on quite a few dates, actually—only first dates, mind you—but demand for a widower like me, as I discovered, was such that I might still be going on dates if it were not for my wife, Arlene. At the time she was my makeup artist and friend. We had met a few years before at the SAG awards and worked together enough that I felt comfortable going to her for advice. I had to ask someone—I was a novice. I hadn’t dated—really dated—since before World War II.

So I would e-mail her a picture of the woman I was meeting and ask her opinion: “What do you think?” Or, “Have you heard of this restaurant?”

At some point I realized that I looked forward to Arlene’s responses more than I did the dates. Pretty soon I quit e-mailing her pictures of other women and suggested the two of us get together. I liked talking to her. I liked her personality. I liked her sense of humor. I liked her take on things. I liked her smiles and her eyes. I liked everything about her. Indeed, I liked the feeling—and this came as a pleasant, unsettling surprise—that I liked her and wanted to be around her.

Does that happen in your eighties?

It sure does.

There was just one problem: the difference in our ages: forty-six years. Ten years is not that big an issue once you’re in your thirties; a thirty-five-year-old man with a twenty-five-year-old woman is not a big deal. Twenty years is also an understandable choice, whether you’re in your sixties or your eighties. My brother is married to a woman in her sixties. No one questioned that gap when he was in his sixties, and now that he’s in his eighties, both of them look smart.

But forty-six years was uncharted territory. Though I was quite sure Arlene knew I was smitten with her, I was not blind to the reality: we were nearly two-and-a-half generations apart, which was like being separated by three time zones, the equator, and another language. Or was it? Or was it not that big of a difference?

I went over the pros and cons, making sure the pros outnumbered the cons, and told myself to be cautious, to take any next steps slowly. I knew that, at eighty-three, I was going to be the major beneficiary of socializing with a beautiful woman in her thirties. At the same time, I sensed that Arlene also enjoyed my company. We had worked together. We e-mailed. We talked on the phone. She occasionally came over and made dinner, or I would pick something up, and she checked in on me. It seemed safe to assume that she was thinking about me almost as often as I was thinking about her—and how to move our friendship into a relationship.

As this happened, I began to feel like myself again. I turned the lights on again. I felt a lightness in my step. I looked forward to talking to Arlene. I had things to say. I wasn’t isolated or alone or lonely. It was the darnedest thing. After months of floundering, it was so natural, so effortless. Since then people have asked how I got through the tough parts of losing Michelle. The answer? I didn’t. What helped me through this tough period was the same thing that helps in any tough situation, the same thing that had brought me luck when I was struggling in New York with a wife and three young kids when I left the TV station where I worked and auditioned for every play on and off Broadway in order to earn extra money: I opened myself up to the world and all its possibilities, and the world responded.

In this particular instance, I opened my heart. I let life back in. I realized that if I wanted Arlene in my life, I simply had to take a risk. The choice was mine. And it was a simple choice: sit or get off the pot roast.