Having People

A sweet-voiced 12 year-old sang a beautiful solo in the Fiddler on the Roof revue I directed. It is called Far from the Home I Love and is the lament of a daughter who has made the wrenching decision to leave her home and family and tight-knit, supportive community in order to be with the man she loves. I only today realized that the mother of the girl accompanying this solo had done precisely that—left Israel and her entire family to move here and make a life and family with an American husband.

My daughter had some tough times this week and it made me wish for the 1,000th time that she had living grandparents. We have so few family elders that I am making a big detour after an upcoming college reunion to go visit an aunt (age 101) and some first cousins that I barely know. And my sister wants to come too. There is something about aging that makes relatives so much more precious. They are, no matter what, your people and I so envy others who have lots of them around—annoying and demanding and smothering though they may be. I’m sure it would drive me insane and yet I long for it.

Sometimes you get lucky and have people you choose or who choose you instead of having the same blood running through your veins. Often these are old and dear friends who have been to war with you—the marriage war, the parenting war, the college war, an actual war—they have seen you at your best and your worst. They have let you lean heavily on them when you were broken and you have done the same for them. You learn to trust that they will pick up when you call, be your emergency contact on the school forms and drive you for your colonoscopy. They are as essential to the fabric of your life as food. You hope fervently that you remember often enough to tell them this.

But sometimes there are other people who are more on the fringe—they live in your peripheral vision—who come through for you in surprising ways. They save you when you need it most even though you would never normally think to ask them for even a ride to the car repair shop.  The seven year-old who decided he was going to make sure I had an actual roof for the fiddler to play on, the piano mom MD who tore up her office schedule to see my kid on a moment’s notice, the sweet teen who helps me do things with computers I could otherwise only dream of, Marla at CVS who has walked me through how to print photos from my phone no fewer than 6 times without once calling me an idiot.

Occasionally there are odd attempts at connection that feel wrong. The woman I barely know who sent me an article on preventing theft of my dead husband’s identity. Really? Or a woman I have never met but who attended Tom’s funeral because her daughter was coming, who left me a voicemail suggesting coffee because we had both been through “the same thing”—except that I lost the kind, good love of my life and she lost a child abuser who committed suicide rather than face prison. I’ll pass on coffee.

Right now my roster of people is feeling a little thin—an adult daughter with whom I am just now finding some sort of balanced relationship, a sweet teen just two years from leaving the nest, a sister an hour away, a brother many states away. My closest friends are also far away (oh dear—is it possible I like it that way?!) and my dearest local chum will likely be leaving pretty soon as she has a better life waiting for her elsewhere. I am a bad phone person and couldn’t Skype with a gun to my head so instead I swoop in to visit my nearest and dearest or plan trips with them and then let that sustain me until the next round of nourishment. In between I knuckle down and work hard at teaching and fill my time with other group activities that seem intimate, but aren’t—book club, meditation class, yoga, church choir. I say truthful things because I know I only see those people in that setting. Nobody will be in my living room asking what I meant or how I’m feeling now.

Lately I have even realized that I am physically stingy. My children crave my touch and I seem to offer it grudgingly. Even Tom’s nightly request for back scratches were always made apologetically. God! It is as if I am afraid to give too much—information, affection, praise, love because it is in short supply—which is, of course, ridiculous. What exactly am I saving it all for?!!

I have carved out a reasonably successful and sustaining professional niche—people seek me out and I self-promote and together it supports me and makes me feel useful and productive and maybe even like I am spreading some good in the world, since my “product” is music. But on the personal side I am not at the top of many guest lists and definitely not who you call for a fun lunch or girls’ night out. I’m old, I barely drink, I am highly critical, I fall asleep at 9 p.m. and I can be very snarky. Usually I am fine with this until I learn of parties/outings I was not a part of. I liked the one hostess who announced at a party—no pics and no Facebook posts, saying “I did not invite your friends tonight and I would rather they not see evidence of that fact!”

So I seem to have a few openings. Perhaps I should advertise: Wanted: people who will know and love me despite the paucity of information I am willing to provide, who will be my go-to in emergencies and invite me to at least one event per year—dinner, concert, kid’s graduation party—something. Extra points if they think I’m smart enough to discuss quality books with and they think I’m funny (ha-ha, not strange.) That really is about all I want. I have slowly but surely come to grips with having a much bigger introvert component than I would ever have admitted in my youth. I think I was wearing a mask and faking it for many years and it was exhausting. Maybe it is my connection to music, but noise really bothers me—loud radio blaring over my head at a restaurant, people talking all night on a red-eye, even some kid swinging their legs against the chair in class. I like to be with people in short, well-defined doses where they are there by my invitation or are in some way under my direction. That makes me feel safe and then I can let loose and pretend to be a chatty, funny, extrovert for a half hour before I need to fold up my little tent and go home for a hot bath.

I wish I was a little closer to one end of the spectrum or another. My first husband would come home from a party at midnight and immediately start looking for another one. A piano teacher friend shares that her teen wants to answer the door and greet each and every student who arrives at their home. She is such an extrovert that the thought of missing an opportunity to connect is almost painful. I have another friend who is very spiritual and can go days without seeing others as she reads, writes, meditates and gathers her strength from solitude. My favorite scenario is where there are people just at the edge of my space who are mostly quiet and don’t need me for anything. Having them there makes me feel “normal” and not alone, but having them demand anything real of me makes me long for isolation. My girls refer to this as the “Need my own aisle” syndrome stemming from a long ago trip to CVS where I had a long list and little time and just wanted to efficiently move through the store while my (then young) children occupied themselves looking at this or that. Instead they followed half a step behind me and talked non-stop, asking questions, making comments, pointing things out and expecting appropriate responses from me. I finally said in exasperation, “Can you just go look around a little? I really need my own aisle!”

All of this makes me miss Tom with a longing close to pain. First and foremost he was willing to put up with this strange push me-pull you relationship I have with fellow humans. As with most difficult realities it didn’t seem to faze him. If he wanted to be close to me—and he usually wanted to be close to me—he just would be. He’d sit shoulder to shoulder on the couch, hold my hand in the movies, sling an arm around me in church, spoon all night in bed. Sometimes it was too much and then I’d go take a bath or have tea with a friend, but mostly it was flattering to be so wanted and comforting to be so connected. I have never found that perfect balance before and I can’t imagine it would ever happen again. At the very best maybe I will find someone I want to have sex with a time or two before I die and who feels the same about me. I’ll just have to hope nobody gets attached at the heart because the love of my life has already come and gone and that position is not being re-posted.

But I could use a few more people and I could try a little harder to find them. I suspect they are already there—right within my field of vision if I just pop on the cheaters and take a closer look. I think I’ll start by following the advice of one Virginia Byrnes (now Horton) who opined our freshman year in college “If someone asks you to do something try to say yes. It is almost always the things you don’t do that you regret far more than the ones you do.” I will see her in a few short months at our 40th reunion. She is still my people despite the four decades that have passed with sparse communication. She knew me when and thus will always be my people. Old friends are special, but that doesn’t mean there might not be some cool new ones out there too. Maybe at pickle ball (where I suck), maybe at church (where I don’t), maybe up north where retirees abound and there are more book and walking and mahjong clubs than you can shake a birch branch at. It is a little exciting to ponder the possibilities. And my electric bill might go down if I spend less time hiding in the bath!

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