In the young and active world, we socialize without trying. We surround ourselves with people easily and often. We take classes and hold jobs. We ride the subway, buy groceries, sigh impatiently on post office lines. We’re all lonely sometimes, but we get around. We get along.
That changes when we age, when we need help with simple tasks we could once do ourselves: opening doors, brewing tea, tucking the covers around us in bed. We don’t get around much, and we don’t get along without help. It’s lonely to be old.
Some years ago, a family friend tried to make conversation with my then-ninetysomething grandmother Irene, newly moved from Brooklyn to Brookline. “Do you have any friends in the area?”
“All my friends are dead,” my grandmother said.
An awful silence.
My grandmother had outlived all of her siblings, her husband, and a series of spaniels. She was largely alone now, most often leaving the house for a doctor’s appointment or a hospital visit.
My family planned a party just before she turned 100, to celebrate her life while we could, rather than afterward. I fretted that the turnout would be too small, but a warm flock of people came to celebrate her, including family from Philadelphia, Omaha, and Los Angeles. My uncle, toting “Happy Birthday” cookies from his bakery through two Texas airports. A student from the junior high English class Gram had taught nearly six decades earlier.
Guests rang the doorbell all morning, and eventually, I opened the door to an unfamiliar couple, perhaps in their 60s. He carried a bouquet of red roses, she a flashy gift box. He asked, “Do you recognize us?”
And then I did, and I started to cry.
Boris and Ethel emigrated from Russia to Brooklyn with slews of other Jews in the 1980s and were my grandmother’s tenants on King’s Highway for 11 years. She charged them an astonishingly tiny, barely increasing rent to live in her downstairs apartment. She was a natural teacher, helping them with English words and American acclimation, while they helped her with shopping, errands, and home repairs. She liked their black poodle, Buck, and they got to know my family and our dogs over years of visits.
They had happened to call my mother a few weeks earlier to check on Irene, so she invited them to the birthday party. They wanted to come but were “maybes,” still in Brooklyn, with sickly, elderly mothers of their own.
But they showed up, he dapper and she kind. They drove eight hours, seven years after Gram moved away and another family bought the house.
The former tenants were startled when I cried, more so when I couldn’t stop. I cried over our champagne toast — my mother lifted the glass to her mother’s lips for a sip — and I cried over the birthday cake with candles spelling out “Mazel Tov.” My grandmother chuckled while we sang “Happy Birthday,” hearing, in her lonely years with bad ears, how beloved she was by so many.
That a couple would travel such a distance, toting roses and a Russian shawl, to visit a former landlady — of all minor associations — struck me: later in life, how mundane a relationship is so valuable. When company is scarce, when our contemporaries are gone, we will be blessed by the kindnesses we’ve shown. When our fingers and ears and eyes are failing, when we can no longer open doors or dial phones, who will be our warm company?
While we can, we gather. They all matter: friends, acquaintances, colleagues, students, tenants. When we can no longer meet new people, all the bonds we’ve forged count. We need company on the journey, help to blow out the candles when there are so many on our cake.