She’s so petite reaching only 5-feet, 2-inches on her tiptoes. She has one of those natural killer tans thanks to her Portuguese heritage. She does almost everything with a cigarette propped between her two fingers and has a habit of using the “s” word quite often when talking to herself. She’s 70 years old and her name is Angie. And she’s my roommate.
I never thought when I was 23 I would be living with a woman more than three times my age. I received a good portion of harmless jabs when I informed my friends and family of my new roommate. I was teased that my Friday nights would turn into late night rounds of bridge with the neighboring senior citizens (late night meaning 8 o’clock), and my afternoons would revolve around classic reruns of Matlock.
Initially, the transition made me a little uneasy in terms of determining how to tackle this new fusion of the young and the elder. Would we watch TV together? Would we eat dinner together? What would we talk about? Would I have a curfew? Would I be required to tell her where I’m going and what time I’d return and would I have to call when I’m going to be late? I found this to be more challenging than moving in with my parents or someone my parent’s age. I felt I had to tiptoe around this woman maintaining an uber-polite presence that I only hoped would leave a positive impression of my generation in her head. The first few weeks of our living together were irritatingly formal. I wanted so desperately to be myself, to unleash the silly kid I was inside, yet it was impossible to find an outlet for joking grounds. It was even more impossible for me to actually break out of the reserved pattern I had quickly latched onto. Yet slowly but surely, after a dinner or two of awkward silences and the adjustment to each other’s schedules and habits, we began to act more as friends than strangers.
I found out quickly she was a shop-a-holic much like myself. She was incredibly clean, often overriding my initiative to wash dishes, which I knew she did because she didn’t trust me to do as well of a job. She took smoking and coffee very seriously and I learned fast that when she requested something from me, it was to be done efficiently. As I discovered more about Angie I felt I was getting a front row seat to what people her age experience that had never crossed my mind. Her husband died only three years prior, which seemed to be a common thread in the lives of her widowed neighbors.
Here she was, a widow living alone, with the closest family member being hundreds of miles away. She occupies her time by cleaning, watching TV, reading the newspaper and occasionally going out for a drink with a friend. I wondered the extent of her loneliness and how often she ached to be near family and all things familiar. I realized she was waist-deep in the time in her life when people pass away as I was at the time in my life where everyone seemed to be getting married. And it leveled me to think she, like many others her age, spend 30 or more years with someone and then one day they’re gone. How does one handle that? How does one handle a season or many seasons of inevitable death and loneliness? I felt entirely insensitive and ignorant to stereotyping the older generation into these neat little boxes of old-fashioned sunshine and yes ma’ams and no ma’ams and oversized Lincolns that move too slow.
I was beginning to see Angie simply as a person. I stripped away her age and that invisible barrier that held us within our margins of social etiquette. And it wasn’t until then that I realized how much she was like any other person. She loves people and could make five friends while standing in line at the grocery store. She loves country music, dancing and has a niche for bargain shopping. She stays out past midnight, sleeps in late and frequently stays over her friend’s house.
I’m still learning about Angie, about her past and her present. I’m learning that the tiniest amount of time spent with her means so much to her, even if she doesn’t verbalize it. I’m learning the importance of putting yourself into other people’s shoes, kicking stereotypes to the curb, and being sensitive to where people are in life. I’m learning that no matter how old you are or what lifestyle you’re accustomed to, you can still kick it with a 70-year-old.
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