Tracy Kidder’s reportage is distinguished by its ability to render scenes from real life with the graceful language and narrative drama more commonly associated with works of fiction. The most frequent praise bestowed upon Kidder, in fact, is that he writes with the transformative powers of a novelist, performing the alchemy required to turn the ordinary into something extraordinary.
Since writing The Soul of a New Machine (1981), a Pulitzer Prize-winning book that chronicles the creation of a computer by a team of engineers, Kidder has turned his talents to more humble human endeavors. House (1985) charted the construction of a home, and Among Schoolchildren (1989) followed a schoolteacher and her class of fifth-graders. In Old Friends, Kidder records the passing of a year of life in Linda Manor, a nursing home located in western Massachusetts. Given Kidder’s previous slice-of-life style, the reader can expect a complete and candid look at the institution. What must it be like to live there? To be that infirm? That demented? Where do hope and solace come from in such a setting? To be forced by failing health to enter a nursing home is, after all, many an elderly American’s worst nightmare.
By definition, entering a nursing home means leaving behind one’s home. It means mourning the loss of a place in the community, however diminished by ill-health that place may have become. It means bidding farewell to the comfort of seeing family and friends in familiar places. As Kidder observes, “The central problem of life at Linda Manor is, after all, only the universal problem of separateness: the original punishment, the ultimate vulnerability, the enemy of meaning.” Given the great distances created by illness and infirmity within a nursing home, connecting with other people can very difficult. It is nearly impossible for nursing-home life to substitute for the community left behind. To create a community of two with a roommate whom one tolerates, let alone learns to respect and love, is a rare and valuable thing indeed. Old Friends is the chronicle of such a friendship.
At Linda Manor, in early 1990, Joe Torchio and Lou Freed met by happenstance. Neither one had the money to afford private quarters, so they were brought together to share a room on Forest View, the upstairs wing of the nursing home where the most able- bodied residents are housed. Physical health in a nursing home is a relative thing, though. When the book opens, in December, 1990, Lou is ninety years old and quite frail. Several diseases of the eye have left him with little vision. He has stopped trying to keep track of the names of his medications. What little walking he does is with a cane. Although much younger at seventy-two years old, Joe is even more infirm. A stroke almost twenty years earlier has left him with speech problems, a crippled right arm and leg, and a physical tendency to lapse into tears. Although he once overcame the worst of the stroke’s effects and even returned to work, a series of later operations left him disabled again and forced him into institutional care.
Lou and Joe learn the facts of each other’s lives by listening to what is-and is not-revealed during reminiscences, telephone calls, and conversations with visitors. Kidder allows such details to accumulate in a similarly haphazard manner for the reader. Lou, it turns out, lived most of his years in Philadelphia. He started work in 1914, sweeping floors in a factory the day after he completed eighth grade. During his long work life, he held many different jobs; he spent thirty-five years working his way up in a fountain-pen factory across the Delaware River in New Jersey. An observant Jew, he never smoked, got drunk once, and married the only woman he ever dated. He and his wife, Jennie, had been married for almost seventy years when Jennie died at Linda Manor in March, 1990.
In some ways, Joe cannot be more different. He has a law degree from Boston College. He served as chief probation officer for the district court in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, for thirty years and was well known in town. A lapsed Catholic, he describes himself as an “agnostic leaning toward atheism.” His best friend, Ray, sees Joe as a tragic figure whose enormous potential was devastated by miseries large and small. Joe’s first son died of leukemia at age seven. His first daughter was born retarded. A gift for playing the violin was taken away when an accident severed tendons in his hand. A decade of heavy drinking, after the births of his first two children, took a toll on Joe’s marriage and friendships. Then, at the age of fifty- four, he was struck by the debilitating stroke.
Despite these differences, the two men find that they are in agreement over certain important issues. They both disdain complainers and admire those who bear pain and hardship with stoicism and grace. Although more critical than Dora, the resident who writes “Beautiful morning here” in her diary almost every day, Joe and Lou similarly focus on the positive. They also value laughter and try to use humor to grant a certain dignity to their situation, referring to the bathroom, for example, as “the library.” While Linda Manor imposes a strict routine upon their lives, they manage to find their own routine-within-a-routine. Every morning, they rise and join...
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