Don’t know about you, but it seems my supply of friends has dwindled. Once upon a time, it seemed I had bunches of friends, so many that people remarked on their number. But as time went on most of them vaporized. Some got lost, others distanced themselves—or I from them—and more than a few went and died on me, mostly without goodbyes. What I’m left with are a few people I’ve known thirty-forty years, and like me, they’re superannuated. Lord knows how long any of us will last. For a while, I hope.
My dear mother had more friends for a longer time than most can hope for and outlived most of them. After she retired, and especially after her husband died, she devoted herself to collecting them, and managed to lure a number of them to come to her house for monthly meetings that went on for close to twenty years. Sometimes when I called her she would tell me with barely contained excitement “I have a new friend! She’s a young woman living in the next town who (has some family situation) and likes to (do interesting things) and says she’ll (help if I need anything).” See, mom was not just looking for pals and bridge companions, she wanted to hook up with compadres who would like her enough to serve as alternate caregivers. Mom wasn’t sick or even frail, understand, but she had mobility problems plus others she frequently imagined. Being sort of a worrywart, she anticipated emergency scenarios in which someone would have to rush her to some urgent restorative venue, like the office of her long-suffering primary care physician.
And so, she made a post-retirement career of scavenging from neighboring cities and suburbs of south-central Connecticut good-hearted (and usually much younger) souls who liked her enough to come to her aid in a pinch. The thing was, even if she was using their good auspices she gave them something they wanted, if only a sympathetic ear for their problems. And they did confide. It constantly amazed me how much she knew about people she’d only met a few weeks ago—their family quarrels, relationship problems, work issues and career aspirations, and even medical difficulties. It was almost un-American. I can count on the fingers of one hand people I know that intimately.
And that’s the rub. My oldest friends are, well, old, and most have health issues. Other people I know are, well, just other people I know who don’t really let me into their lives. So if something really bad happened, for example if my wife kicked me out of the house or it burned to the ground, who might I turn to that could or would help? If our local nuke started spewing radiation, to where would our family flee? To a motel, I guess, but then what?
An MIT study (briefly summarized here) came out this year that shows friendships generally aren’t what most of us take them to be. Surprisingly, at least half of friendships aren’t reciprocal. The local, national, and international surveys of people who know one another it cites all indicate that about half of the people respondents identified as close friends don’t feel that way about them. In other words, there’s a good chance that the person you judge to be your best friend might actually feel they are someone else’s. The quality of friendships may matter more to women, the quantity more to men, but these findings may come as a surprise to both sexes.
We all know the saying “The best way to have a friend is to be one,” but the research indicates this may not always work. You’ve also probably heard it said “If you want a friend, get a dog.” True, a dog can be very loyal. If your house catches fire, it might alert you and even lead you to safety. But your pet won’t find you shelter or bring you a casserole. You need a human being who cares for your welfare for that. But that person is not necessarily your friend, at least not the kind that you want to hang out with or pour your heart out to.
Shy people like me have a tougher time making new friends and maintaining a spectrum of relationships than gregarious types, even on social media. Connecting on Linked In, friending on Facebook, and amassing Twitter followers all feel too casual, time-consuming, and ego-tripping for me. Their incessant connection suggestions actually annoy me. I need to control what items are packed in my likely luggage, because it can only hold so much stuff. If I really had reciprocity with all those digital apparitions I think I would go mad keeping up with them.
The problem, I think, is that “friend” is overloaded. It’s a word with many shades of meaning and contexts. When we use it, are we talking about a companion, soul mate, intimate, confidant, familiar, alter ego, second self, playmate, classmate, schoolmate, workmate, ally, associate, sister, brother, kindred spirit, pal, chum, sidekick, crony, main man, mate, bosom buddy, amigo, compadre, homeboy, homegirl, homie, dawg, bud, gal pal, BF, or BFF? Is your professor, physician, therapist or social worker your friend, even though they might tell you things about yourself that most friends wouldn’t? We need to unpack.
Back to my mom. In her nineties, when she became sick and bedridden, it was her oldest friends—those that were well enough to respond—that came to her aid, but she needed more than they could give. Soon there came a series of nursing aides until her funds ran out and we found her a nursing home. She made a few friends there that she liked, but before long they started to die and then she did.
So there you go. Just like my mom, my truest friends are folks I’ve know the longest and managed to keep in touch with. That time in my life when I had so many friends, what happened to them? Well it turns out that a fair share of them were from my workplace of fifteen years, a research lab. I’m still in touch with about half a dozen of them, even though they mostly moved pretty far away. And it turns out that most of my other friends from those days I siphoned through one particular pal. He too had been a workmate, one who stayed around. Larry was gregarious. He knew hundreds of people and nourished relationships among them, by bringing them together at parties and encouraging them to meet up while traveling. When one of them moved away from Boston, which happened a lot, Larry would call and correspond to keep in touch. That Rolodex you see was his. Over a hundred of its cards are filled in, some with contact information scratched out and replaced when the person moved.
Larry, who you see at right top of that Rolodex and again at bottom right, passed away in 2006. You can read a collective tribute to him here. Many of the denizens of his Rolodex probably are gone too by now. I took many photos of friends over the years and made that collage in the early 80s. Many of its photos are peeling away, as have the people themselves. Makes me feel lonely. Maybe I need new friends.