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  • Pat Johnson

A Heritage of Loneliness

July 5, 1961. I don’t recall the phone call coming in. I was 8 years old. My grandfather had been in the hospital for surgery and was progressing nicely. He was due to be released soon. And then the telephone rang. My mother answered it.


“Mrs. Taylor, you need to come into the hospital immediately. Your father has taken a turn for the worse.” If I had known then what I know now, I would have known that he had died or that he was very close to death with no turning back.


An autopsy was not done to determine the cause of death. So, it was surmised that it had been a blood clot that had probably lodged in his heart or lungs.


I sat by his casket and cried my heart out. He was my favorite. How does a grandparent become a favorite? There was nothing about him that any adult would find valuable or beguiling. He was a closet alcoholic. He smelled of chewing tobacco. He was short and balding and spoke with a slight Southern accent. And he was unemployed. But he had an infectious laugh, and when I was in his presence, he spoke to me, not about me or down to me.


He would often drop by the house unannounced and bring treasures, usually a bag of circus peanuts--those orange, hard, marshmallow-like candies--to share with us. And then Mom would put him to work around the house or yard. I can still see him on his knees, pulling weeds along the back fence, swatting mosquitoes and tossing weeds into a metal tub.


Looking back on his life, I think he was probably lonely. His eldest had left home at age 13, unable to tolerate the frequent moves, the alcoholism and who knows what else. As children, my sister and I were protected from the truth. My mother probably thought that if we didn’t know the real story, we wouldn’t be harmed by it. But, back then, she didn’t know that her behavior betrayed a complicity in his disease. Her need for order and control grew out of those frequent moves and the chaos of her own life.


Yes, Grandpa was lonely. I never saw any affection between him and Grandma. His only son was gone. He had lost two other children to childhood diseases, and his only daughter had married and now had a family of her own to attend to.


Grandma and Grandpa invited members of the extended family to live with them, those who had fallen on hard times and could not pick themselves up. He was also part of a church family, but I now wonder how tightly he tied in. Did they know of his alcoholism? Did they distance themselves from him because of this? He floated along from job to job and ended up selling farm eggs. There was no circle of co-workers around him. He was alone.


I remember Mom saying now and then, “Did you know that you can feel alone in a crowd? That’s how I often feel.” So, the loneliness was passed on.


At Mom’s funeral, I spoke of her loneliness, and the song we played to honor her spoke of it. Those who heard this were flabbergasted. They knew her as a loving, caring, principled woman who went out of her way to help the underdog--the neighbors who lived with alcoholism who had sometimes mistrusted her. Instead of striking back, she nurtured their relationship, and she and Dad were the ones who found our neighbor dead at the bottom of the stairs with a head injury. He was the identified alcoholic and had fallen down the stairs, another victim of loneliness. His wife spent much of her time volunteering, needing to pour her energies into those outside of her circle, and his children had grown up and moved on.


She was the one who befriended her neighbors in Florida, two men from Latin America who were obviously gay. No one else on the church grounds where they resided would give them the time of day or even nod in their direction. She and Dad helped in tangible ways and were there for one partner when the other passed on.


She was hospitable like her parents. She invited people over, cooked for them and listened to their stories. She gave others a safe haven, a place to be themselves because she was completely herself with them.


A heritage of loneliness alongside a heritage of grace toward others. One wonders if the loneliness doesn’t propel one toward reaching out and identifying with others who suffer loneliness.

Tomorrow, I will be helping to serve communion to our congregation as an elder. This time, it will be by intinction. Instead of passing the bread and wine from person to person in each row, the congregation will come forward one by one to take the bread and dip it into the wine. I will have the sacred opportunity to look into the eyes of each person who comes forward. The woman in charge of the serving of communion called me two days ago to remind me and asked me if I would be the “wandering server.” I begged off this task since I had consented last time but missed the delightful and humbling occasion to meet each person face to face.


This time in honor of my heritage, I will say a prayer for each person who receives the sacrament. So many of our congregants appear to be very well connected, but who really knows? As my mother said, “I feel lonely in a crowd.” My prayer is that each person will experience the presence of God, our friend and creator, the one who knows and loves us best and that each person who harbors loneliness will be used to care for those who are also living with loneliness.