“Wasn’t it lonely,” people often ask, “growing up as an only child?”
Maybe they are picturing an 11-year-old me—ponytailed hair, smudged Keds—eating Frosted Flakes alone in front of Saturday morning cartoons, or pining for someone to play Monopoly with me while the babysitter flirts with her boyfriend on the princess phone in the kitchen.
Really, it was like this: the other twin bed in my pink-and-chartreuse room occupied by a steady pour of relatives and friends. My grandmother often stayed over; she smelled of Jean Nate bath splash and peeled off her girdle in the half-light from the hall. My aunt, my mother’s only sibling, camped at our house on Mondays when she was in grad school; we watched “Rhoda” together while we snuggled on the couch.
Saturday nights, my room’s other occupant was usually a friend: Diana or Thea or Evie. Before we slept, we draped an old crushed-velvet comforter across the channel between the beds and crawled underneath to litter the shag carpet with Frito crumbs and whisper about the periods we didn’t have yet.
And on the rare occasion when my room was not serving as hostel for a transient cousin or a recently divorced family friend, I was still in rich company. I believed my dolls and stuffed animals had souls—especially the hand-embroidered, khaki-cloth soldier that had been my mother’s—and made sure to arrange them face-up, so they could breathe.
Crammed into a set of open shelves were the books I loved, tales of large, boisterous clans, antipodes of my own snug trio. I read them all, multiple times—”Cheaper by the Dozen,” “All of a Kind Family,” “Five Little Peppers and How They Grew”—and watched every episode of “The Waltons” to its final, filial litany: “Good night, John-Boy; good night, Mary Ellen.”
Downstairs was the timpani of my mother’s manual typewriter, the occasional whine of the powder-room door. Upstairs, the crackle of whatever game my sportswriter dad was watching in his office, or the staccato tick of his own typewriter.
I lay there, wondering if extraterrestrials were real or remembering scraps of poetry or designing dollhouses in my head. I was alone in my pink gingham sheets. But I wasn’t lonely.
At 23, I drove cross-country by myself, an odyssey I now describe off-handedly as “the time I ran away from home.” But I wasn’t just seeking separation; I was trying to cobble a clear sense of self. Who would I be, if I wasn’t tidily plugged into networks of extended family and high school classmates and newspaper colleagues, a matrix of rituals and expectations?
My itinerary, an intentionally crooked line, took me from Philadelphia through Ohio to Illinois to Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and California, with a final stop in Portland, Oregon, where I knew exactly no one.
“Won’t you be lonely?” people asked.
“Nope,” I said. But secretly, I hoped I would be. I wanted to define my edges, and to locate them, I needed wide-open territory: hours in the car (no cell phone, not even an audio book) and meals of ramen noodles I would fork up with only a novel for company. I wanted to venture out to the treacherous scree of feelings my crowded life as a reporter, friend and daughter didn’t often admit: Sorrow. Boredom. And yes, loneliness. To learn what I hungered for, I needed room to want.
On my trip, I found the tender, fleeting kinship of travelers: the grad student in Columbus who treated me to beer and quoted Yeats; the interpreter for the deaf who hopped a ride from Durango and taught me the sign for “connect.” I discovered the tedium of driving a very straight line across Nebraska, and the azure sprawl of western sky. I spied a double rainbow at the Grand Canyon and woke to watch the sun rise (“Here comes it!” gasped a nearby tourist) the following morning.
Every few days, I fed quarters into a hostel pay phone and called home. And when I finally reached Portland on an August Friday, driving over the Hawthorne Bridge to stay with friends-of-friends-of friends (in other words, strangers), my life purred with possibility.
I stayed in Portland for seven years. I fell in love there. And when I left, I tearfully peeled away from colleagues, ex-lovers, friends and soulmates. I’d made connections, surprising and enduring ones. At the same time, I ached for the people I’d left behind: grandparents, parents, second cousins, childhood friends.
I recall feeling lonely in college, when I was the only sober one in a crowd of drunken raucousness, or the sole virgin at a table of women all dishing about their first times. Or on some freshman-year Saturday nights, when I wandered the paths of Old Campus, chain-eating chocolate-covered peanuts and looking up at diamond-shaped windows behind which, I imagined, everyone else was having indelible fun.
What I didn’t know was that loneliness was part of life’s package, a necessary—even welcome—unease on the way to finding my people and clarifying my self. I didn’t know that my hunger for love and company would make its fulfillment that much sweeter. I didn’t know that, even after 28 years of partnership, I would still seek the vertigo of disconnection, then yearn just as fervently to tighten the gap, that life would be a continual seesaw between autonomy and communion.
We are human; we miss each other. Do amoebae get lonely, I wonder? Do fish? When I make a cutting from the hosta in my garden, untangling the plant at its ferocious root, do the separated fronds long for the leaves they left behind?
Recently I heard on a podcast that everyone on earth is at least a 50th cousin to everyone else. I tracked that assertion to its squishy origin: a 1978 book called “The Seven Mysteries of Life” by philosopher/reporter Guy Murchie, now quoted as if it were scientific fact.
But before I did the research, I spent a weekend in Manhattan, looking through the lens of Murchie’s claim. What if I regarded everyone as a not-so-distant relative? Yes, the dude in waiter-whites reading “Minor Characters” on the A train, and the woman who seems to be meditating in her seat, and her friend with the dyed black hair and oversized sunglasses, and the man with filthy bare feet curled in an 8thAvenue doorway, pleading for change.
Those were just four of the 8.5 million in New York City, the tiniest peck of the 7.4 billion on our planet. But there they were, feeding pigeons on park benches or slumped against subway poles, leaning into their lives, leaning toward mine. How can I be lonely for long if we are truly all in this together, a tumble of 50th cousins, trying to make a go of it on our unlikely knob of earth?