I was standing with the buggy at Lowes. You know how it is when you move – there’s a bunch of stuff you realize you need for the new home. Barstools for example. Our new kitchen has a countertop island big as a coffin. No kidding. There’s no dinning room to speak of but my grandsons can all sit at the counter at the same time and fling food at one another.
Only we didn’t have any barstools for them to do that when they were all here last month.
So there I was, holding three boxes of barstools on the buggy while Tim ran up and down the aisles looking for a belt for the vacuum cleaner. I didn’t mind the ten-minute wait. I was being entertained by a clerk with a heavy brogue. I was trying my darndest to figure it out – Was she Irish? Welsh? Aussie? Not Brit, too broken.
I’m bad to eavesdrop, y’all. Fair warning. Consider it an occupational hazard. My friends, what few of them that are left, are all the time having to preface anything they say in front of me with a “This is not for publication” remark.
Turns out the clerk was from Scotland. I know because she told the gal with the brunette hair at the self-checkout line. She and her husband met online. They’d had this online relationship for awhile but the Scot didn’t know if it was going anywhere or not. Her 50th birthday was coming up so she told this fellow that she was having a party and if he wanted to make something of their relationship, he should come to her party. In Scotland.
So he did.
He bought a ticket and flew to Scotland.
They married a short while after that.
I learned all of that while waiting for Tim to return with the vacuum cleaner belt. Only he showed back up without one. Lowes didn’t carry the brand we needed. I didn’t really care about the belt any more. I wanted to hear the rest of the story from the Scottish gal. Like how did she like it here? Did she miss her family? Was her new husband everything she hoped he’d be? Was he a new husband even? For all I knew they could have been married 15 years. What did her family think of her up and moving off like that?
The thing about moving to a new place is that you rarely know anyone’s story. I do have the advantage of moving to an area where I do know some people. Some who’ve been friends for decades. There is something deeply comforting about that. But they aren’t my neighbors and I don’t see them on a weekly basis. So this move has an element of loneliness to it. There are days that pass when the only people I talk to are people who don’t live in the same town as me – my sister, my kids.
When news broke last week that Teresa May had appointed a Minister of Loneliness, people around the world snickered about it. Late night comedians poked fun at May. At the Brits.
I wasn’t laughing, however. As a journalist, I have long known about the health benefits of companionship, and the hazards of loneliness. National Public Radio reported that according to government figures, more than 9 million people in the U.K. “always or often feel lonely” and “around 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month.”
Can you even imagine that? Not even having a conversation with a confidant for over a month?
My mother was a lonely person. She did not invite people into her life easily. Part of that was the result, I think, of being a military wife. Moving around all the time made it difficult to develop meaningful relationships. Her generation didn’t have the benefit of iPhones or email or even affordable phones to keep in touch. Mama wrote letters, but she was hardly prolific. I have a handful of birthday cards she sent me over the years but not a single letter. I don’t think my mother ever sat down and wrote me a letter. Not even when I was in college, some 3,000 miles away.
The other reason I think Mama was reluctant to make friends is that she was the youngest and only girl of five brothers. Forming sisterhood was something alien to her. She had girlfriends she partied with. Girlfriends she would smoke a cigarette with. But I can count on two fingers the number of girlfriends I knew my mother trusted with her hopes and dreams and disappointments. My mother was sometimes jealous of the friendship between Sister Tater and me.
Loneliness is no laughing matter. Health folks say a lack of social interaction can be as bad for you as smoking a couple packs of cigarettes a day.
Listening to the gal from Scotland, I wondered if she was lonely.
Remember in elementary school when if we wanted a friend, we just walked right up to another kid and said, “Will you be my friend?” Then we would grab hands and walk off into the library together? Many of us lose the ability to make friends as we age. Many of us are having more social interactions while we cultivate fewer and fewer meaningful friendships. Social isolation is a growing problems for Millennials and those right behind them. Younger generations would rather visit via Facebook than by phone. Or in person.
An adult who walks up to another and asks”Will you be my friend?” is shunned. They might be labeled “kooks” or “weird” or “slow”.
I am not sure why.
Why do we find it so difficult to live with hearts wide open the way we did as children?
As Tim paid for the barstools, I had the urge to walk up to the clerk helping him and ask her: Will you be my friend? I’m new to town. I want to know your stories.
Instead, I waited for Tim to finish and then I told her, “My family is from Tennessee. Scots and Irish.”
“Oh!” she exclaimed. “What’s the clan name?”
“Hmmm,” I said. “Not sure. My son did all that research.” Then I asked, “Do you ever get back to Scotland?”
“I want to,” she said. Then she told me a story of how she took the job at Lowes because she was lonely. Her husband is on the road a lot. “I miss my family. I come from a big family, you know. Lots of nieces and nephews running in and out of the house, asking me to come have a drink with them. It’s a big family. I’m going to go in March, I hope. And not just for a week but for three, at least. I miss my family.”
“Would you like to go for coffee sometime?” I asked.
“Yes!” she said, handing me a torn piece of tally paper to write down my number.
My own government hasn’t recognized me as the minister of anything, but if they did, I can’t think of a title I’d like better than to be the Minister of Loneliness.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of CHRISTIAN BEND: A Novel (Mercer University Press).