The beautiful friendship of a very odd couple

Contemporary Nonfiction

October 02, 2005|By BETH KEPHART | BETH KEPHART,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

His Oldest Friend: The Story of an Unlikely Bond

Sonny Kleinfield

Time Books / 277 pages

FRIENDSHIP IS THE SAVING GRACE of aging. Afternoons spent with a like-minded soul, in a wedge of sun, when the talk turns to gossip and memory, to yearning and fears, to advice that gets tried on and lived in. A square of shared chocolate. Jokes that get more laughs than they deserve. That comfortable silence.

A few years ago, Sonny Kleinfield, a New York Times reporter who has authored seven books, went in search of a most atypical friendship - a bond between someone quite old and someone vividly young.

His search brought him to Margaret Oliver, a clear-eyed, clear-minded 93-year old widow who was ensconced in a nursing home, and Elvis Checo, a 20-year-old man who had been born in the Dominican Republic and was now doing his best under difficult circumstances in Washington Heights.

Brought together for a few afternoons a week at Margaret's nursing home through a program developed by the New York City Department for the Aging, the two quickly became close friends - seeing similarities in each other despite the enormous, and what would be for many unsurpassable, disparities in age and experience.

His Oldest Friend is the book that emerged from the time Kleinfield spent in the company of these two unforgettable souls. We see Margaret and Elvis together; we see them apart, living their own lives or recalling the details of their past. We come to know what each is up against individually, and how, together, they are better off. Elvis brings Margaret chocolate bars, helps her on with her sweater, makes sure she has what she needs. Margaret counsels Elvis on college and eating right, on attitude and ambition, on looking after himself in an environment where no one else has or will.

Kleinfield himself never enters the story, and so it is told with an omniscient gloss - a vantage point that can be, at times, disconcerting, particularly in the early pages when the dialogue between Elvis and Margaret, who are already deep into their friendship, sounds a bit tight and odd, informational as opposed to conversational. Later passages in the book might leave readers befuddled, wondering how, precisely, Kleinfield gained access to the exceedingly private scenes he's retelling.

But Kleinfield's authorial stance is more than compensated for by his ever-apparent heart. The challenges his two main subjects face - growing physical impairment and boredom for Margaret; the trials of the street, a bad back and poverty for Elvis - clearly move Kleinfield, and as readers of this book we are moved as well. Likewise, the absolute - and absolutely dignified - love they have for each other is, in Kleinfield's hands, beautifully rendered and compelling.

Getting old isn't easy, and yet each of us hopes it will happen to us. Being poor isn't fair, and yet it's rampant. By presenting the so-called "ordinary" transactions in the lives of two seemingly unexceptional people, by demonstrating the power of friendship in a breached and fractured world, by reminding us of the sheer depth of humanity in Margaret and Elvis, two people who, without Kleinfield's book, would have remained invisible to the rest of us, Kleinfield elevates the story of one specific friendship to a universal tale about the triumph of compassion.

Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of five books, most recently Ghosts in the Garden, and is a 2005 recipient of a Pew Fellowship in the Arts.

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