Kidder goes gently into a nursing home

September 29, 1993|By Loraine O'Connell | Loraine O'Connell,Orlando Sentinel

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Old Friends"

Author: Tracy Kidder

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Length, price: 384 pages, $22.95 To open Tracy Kidder's "Old Friends" is to enter a world many of us will know but few of us want to think about -- the world of the nursing home.

Mr. Kidder, whose other works include the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Soul of a New Machine" and "Among Schoolchildren," immerses himself, and his readers, in the settings of his books.

He spent two years with Joe Torchio and Lou Freed, roommates at Linda Manor, observing and chronicling their daily experience of life in the Massachusetts nursing home.

Opposites in disposition and background, Joe and Lou become roommates on the floor known as Forest View when Lou's beloved wife, Jennie, dies. At 71, Joe is temperamental, gruff and rough around the edges. Lou, who is 90 as the book begins, is patient, kind and sentimental, although never maudlin.

As time goes on, they develop a relationship not unlike two old spouses, fussing at each other and worrying about each other as Lou's angina and Joe's lung problems take their toll.

Through their eyes -- and the keen eyes of the author -- we come to know other residents of Linda Manor.

There's Eleanor, who has show biz in her blood and delights in staging cabarets featuring fellow residents -- with her as director, of course. She's an unusual case at Linda Manor; she checked herself in, after leaving a rest home in another part of New England.

"Eleanor's son wasn't surprised when she called him to say that she was leaving the rest home for Linda Manor," Mr. Kidder writes. "He figured she'd exhausted the rest home's theatrical possibilities."

Then there's Phil, whose negative attitude toward life in general, and morbid recitations of celebrity deaths in particular, distress his cronies at Linda Manor.

Among the demented who roam the halls of Linda Manor are Fleur and Norman. One of the rituals at the nursing home is seeing 92-year-old Fleur approach the nurses' station "and ask if someone wouldn't please call her mother."

"Clutching her pocketbook, Fleur would say that even though she liked this resort and her family had been coming here for years it is time for her to go home now."

Norman could be seen several times a day walking the hallways, "sometimes looking for an exit, sometimes looking for his wife. (When he mistook certain fellow residents for her, they got upset and yelled at him.)"

Mr. Kidder's understated style allows him to paint scenes that are touching, humorous and heart-rending with equal clarity -- and without bathos.

It's impossible not to be touched by Zita, who "paced the halls of Forest View from the time she arose until she went to bed."

"Sometimes she paused and, bending down, scratched at the flowers depicted in the carpet, trying to pick one."

It's also impossible not to be touched by the courage and determination of Joe and Lou. Despite their own ailments, and in the midst of the physical and mental wreckage they encounter every day, they retain their dignity and humor.

For a while, the two take part in a morning ritual Lou calls "stupidvising," in which they and several other residents set up chairs in the activity room and watch the breakfast preparations, offering a running commentary and unsolicited advice to the kitchen staff.

"Sometimes Joe found it hard to believe that he was about to join in this silliness," Mr. Kidder writes. "But these pre-breakfast high jinks made him laugh. That was the important thing.

" 'If I couldn't laugh, I'd go nuts in here,' Joe often said."

As Mr. Kidder gently guides us through the change of seasons at Linda Manor, we get to know the daily routines; we cringe at the indignities inflicted on residents by unthinking nurses and aides; we hear the unheeded shrieks of the deranged.

We also get to witness the warmth and interdependency that characterize the relationship between Joe and Lou.

" 'You die after me,' " Joe says to Lou at one point.

" 'Day after [me], you can die.' "

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