When I was in high school, I had a friend who lived down the street. His mother, who cleaned people’s houses, was often away from home. Her husband was quite elderly and nearly blind. When it came to meals, my friend usually had to fend for himself. It became easy for him to rely on junk food—potato chips, candy bars, snack cakes.
Each evening, my parents and I ate supper between five and five-thirty. My friend had a habit of dropping by while we were at our table. My father would ask him if he’d had any supper, and my friend, hovering uneasily in our small kitchen, would say he had. My father knew better. “Beulah,” he’d say to my mother, “get him a plate.”
My friend ate with us several times. My father insisted he fill his plate with whatever my mother had cooked: mackerel patties, hamburgers, meat loaf, fish. My friend didn’t hesitate. He took healthy portions of mashed potatoes, baked beans, coleslaw, green beans, peas, sliced tomatoes, or whatever side dishes my mother had prepared. We sat at our table and ate. My mother asked my friend questions about school; my father gently teased him. It was as if I, an only child, had come upon a brother.
I need to remember the communion of those evenings and how gracefully my father coaxed my friend to eat because when I think of that time, I so often recall the anger that filled our home—my small rebellions, my father’s temper. I need to remember his goodness. I need to remind myself that amid our anger, my father was a goodhearted and generous man.
My mother, as always, was compassionate and lovely. Together, she and my father, invited my friend to join us without ever calling attention to the circumstances that left him needing our kindness. We were often a flawed family, but we always knew how to help someone.
I could stop here. I could end with this account of food given and accepted, but it wouldn’t be the entire story. Good writing depends on honesty. We write to show the world in all its glory and its ugliness, and to do that we have to be willing to face what most people would avoid. To be more exact, writers of memoir cheat themselves, their stories, and their readers if they don’t say it all.
So, here goes. As often happens with childhood friends, my friend and I made choices that distanced us from each other. I left our small town. He stayed. Years and years went by, and I rarely gave him a thought, immersed as I was in the circumstances of my own life. Then the day came when my soon-to-be wife, Cathy, was still living in our home area, and her path crossed that of my friend. He was in poor health. His marriage was ending. He lived in a rundown house trailer. He was disheveled, Cathy said, being as kind as she could while making it clear that his personal hygiene was suffering.
Once, while we were driving down a street in my hometown, I saw him sitting on an old riding lawnmower alongside his trailer. He waved, and I waved, and then I drove on.
I was living by myself in Ohio at the time, and Cathy was working at the local hospital in our home county in Illinois. One day, my friend came into the hospital, and when he saw Cathy, he gave her his phone number and said, “Have Lee call me next time he’s in town.”
So, I did. One night, I called and told him Cathy and I were thinking of going to the local ice cream stand. Would he like to meet us there?
“I don’t have any transportation,” he said.
Now, I’m writing about what I don’t want to say. I’m squirming in my chair. I’m closing my eyes to keep myself from seeing where I know I have to go. I’m feeling the discomfort that tells me this is exactly what I must face. If what we write is to matter at all, we come to these moments of unease when we know we can’t hide.
The thought of my friend, his broken-down body in my car—his dirty body and its odors—gave me pause, and I hemmed and hawed, finding a way, eventually, to say it was getting late and maybe we should wait until next time for that ice cream.
The next time never came. Soon after that call, my friend died.
My refusal to see him still haunts me. I know it would have made my parents, had they still been alive, ashamed. You see this hasn’t been about my father’s goodness at all, but about my own failure. My selfishness. My stingy heart.
All I can do is tell the story of how once upon a time I had a friend who made a habit of coming to my house at suppertime. My father told my mother to get him a plate. I can still see us sitting around that table, passing the dishes of food. I can hear the silverware. I can see my friend eating as much as he wanted. In winter, the dark settled around us. The kitchen windows steamed over with the heat from my mother’s cooking. Outside the wind rose and rattled the storm windows in their frames, but in the living room the gas stove flared, its burners roaring to life.
After supper, my friend and I stood in front of that stove, jostling each other for the best position so we could let the heat warm our backsides. Our bodies touched. We had no desire or need to move. It would be hours before his mother would call, asking if he was there. Sometime after supper, my father would turn on the radio and we’d sit again at the kitchen table, listening to a basketball game, and my mother would pop corn and pare apples, and we’d drink Pepsi Colas, and the night would unfold that way, his mother’s phone call somewhere in the future, and why worry about what hadn’t yet happened? We had popcorn and apples and Pepsi’s. We ate and drank, and my friend had no thought of leaving. Why should he when—I have to believe this—he felt full and warm and cared for and loved?