The price of loneliness


MY FATHER has become the classic old man, brimming with crystalline memories of his childhood. Ever the master story-teller, now he shades his reminiscences with the longing for lost things: high-button shoes, isinglass curtains, freckle-faced boys in caps, the Hebrew school behind the china shop. Remembered by him, they seem sharply etched and softly lit, with much cause for sorrow in their passing.

But there is more here than nostalgia. These days, when my father tells stories of his hard times, I think of my hard times. When he talks about poverty in what he calls "the other side of the roaring '20s," I dwell for those minutes in the darker half of my own era.

Take, for example, the vignette of Fralinger, a World War I vet who was lodging in my grandparents' rowhouse in South Baltimore in 1923, when my father was 6 years old.

This is what my father told me: "The house had three stories, with one bathroom on the landing between the second and third floor. Of course, there was no central heating. On the first floor Grandpa repaired sewing machines. We lived on the second floor, and Fralinger was on the third. He had a big apartment, three or four rooms, but it was cold.

"What I remember so well is that he kept everything he had in a barrel. Why? Well, first of all, he had practically nothing. And there were no closets. So the barrel was his suitcase and his bureau. He had some kind of menial job. I guess he paid about three dollars a week rent, and he ate all of his meals out, probably for less than a dollar a day.

"I don't think he ever had anybody up there, but I was a kid; what did I know? But that barrel! He brought it with him from Christ knows where. Look how I remember all these things! Well, you and Lynne are like that. You hear something, you remember it forever."

It's true. My sister and I are like that. The image of Fralinger will stay with me forever -- a solitary man with a war in his past, no real home, days upon days of restaurant meals and everything he owned in a barrel.

Seventy years later, this man is nesting in my thoughts, evoking comparisons with my own situation. I am living, Fralinger-like, in my father's house again, where the temperature is often uncomfortable. Most of my possessions aren't in rooms, closets or bureaus, but instead they await me in a warehouse downtown. I could eat with my family, but choose instead the publicness of restaurants to remind me that the world is full of other people.

My job, though not menial, is insufficient to support me, and, like Fralinger, I never have guests. I am a member of the downwardly mobile generation, worshiping at the Church of Separation, Divorce and Underemployment. The only significant difference between me and this veteran of the Great War, I tell my father, is that he had to spend much less money to be a recluse.

Do I exaggerate the commonalities? Yes. Superficially, our circumstances seem similar, but Fralinger's times, and the conditions that created them, were, I suppose, really different from now. Perhaps Fralinger seems as close and as knowable as my own face in the mirror because he is recreated by someone who helped raise me.

Still, illusory as it is, this feeling of connection to Fralinger, to my father's early life, serves a purpose. It brings the child closer to the parent even as the time for the ultimate separation draws near. And so we will continue to sit and talk, over cups of drugstore coffee, comparing the price of loneliness then and now and longing for lost things.

Nancy Heneson is a Baltimore writer.

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