Ode: A millennial moves in with an 89-year-old widow
I either heard or read recently that, of the top two tragedies that can happen in a person’s life, the most challenging is for someone you love to die. The second? Moving.
I felt both of these pains at 14—when my little sister’s leopard geckos died a few weeks after we moved west—from Cherokee to Merrill, Iowa. My sister hasn’t had a pet since.
Changing environments, even minimally, can kill some species. Others can navigate life, no problem. The lowly dung beetle uses the light of the Milky Way. I, on the other hand, depend on my iPhone’s map app in which some lady keeps telling me to make a U-turn.
When I moved to Omaha almost two months ago for grad school, Siri was my best friend. But there were other things to navigate that no digital assistant could comprehend—like when I asked, “Siri, how do introverts make friends?” Her monotone response was “Most introverts don’t know how to make friends.” Cool. Good talk.
Here’s the thing: I’m on my 12th home in my sixth city at my sixth school in 25 years.
My last home was in Sioux City, Iowa. I lived on Meadow Lane with an 89-year-old widow who loves mustard pots and orchids and Dr. Ben Carson. This woman, who I affectionately call “my old lady,” kept the retired neurosurgeon’s picture on an end table, next to her reading chair. The picture disappeared after Dr. Carson dropped out of the 2016 Republican presidential race. But for a time, it was proudly displayed alongside the framed photo of her late husband.
He was a photographer, known for capturing images of nature and the Nebraska Cornhuskers. His photos of Arizona’s Antelope Canyon and Minnesota’s rivers lined the walls of my bedroom. Just like that, this man I’d never met took me to places I’d never been.
My old lady kept books for his business for decades. And she never let go of keeping an orderly life. I always knew where she was based on a monthly calendar that she had pinned to a corkboard.
On the weekend of August 12, she wrote “Sad Day,” marking when I would move out.
Going to grad school for English was my dream, but I felt guilty for leaving her all alone. That was the whole point of her wanting a roommate in the first place: so she wouldn’t be by herself. When I moved, I thought, Okay, she’s not, like, going to fall down the stairs and die because I’m not there to carry the vacuum up and down 16 steps, is she?
For almost two years, she rented out her basement to me. She said I could come upstairs and sit on the deck or at the kitchen table whenever I wanted. There’d probably be tea too. We tried cooking together once. She left me in charge of the two lemon-herb chicken breasts while she worked on the Swiss chard. I singed the bottom of both bird boobs, but she said hers still tasted good. I believed her because, if she thought something, she would let me know.
There was one weekend I went to a concert in Minneapolis, and I didn’t tell her or answer her calls while I was away. I came home and found a note on the table downstairs that said, “See me upstairs when you get back.” She didn’t exactly yell at me. I think she was disappointed in the fact that I didn’t call her back, leading her to believe someone had obviously kidnapped me and dragged my body into a bush.
Conversations like these left me feeling like I lived with my grandma. And like a lot of grandmas I know, my old lady set house rules.
She laid them out right away: no smoking and no boys around the house. Well, I only smoke in my car and outside bars because I’m not trying to kill anyone other than myself. And there wouldn’t be boys because I date women. So, I told my old lady that I could wholeheartedly follow half of her rules. She laughed and I did, too. But for very different reasons.
My old lady still believes I’m a heterosexual non-smoker. I never corrected her because I still want to be invited to family dinners at her house.
Those family dinners became a form of entertainment for me.
On one occasion, we were all standing around the kitchen island while her oldest granddaughter tossed a tomato-avocado salad. My old lady had just finished pouring glasses of chardonnay for me and her daughter. She slid one over to me.
She’d need a drink for what she was about to see next. After inspecting the contents of the wooden salad bowl, she grabbed her chest with one hand and clenched my shoulder with the other. Then she gasped, “Mandy, why didn’t you peel the tomatoes?”
No one got the joke. Her daughter interjected, “Mom, no one peels tomatoes.”
“What? Yes, they do! No, let’s take a vote. If you think tomatoes should be peeled, raise your hand.” She looked around. Once she realized she’s the only one, she grabbed my wrist and pulled my arm into the air.
I looked at my old lady and said, “I’m sorry, Marti. I can’t agree with you on this one. Peeled tomatoes seem like naked lemons to me. Kinda freaks me out.”
She joked that my rent “just went up.” Then she got on her soapbox.
“My mother always used to say that no socially respectable woman should put on a dinner if she doesn’t peel her tomatoes.”
Perhaps Emily Post would’ve been proud. But the other women in the room confirmed that, like me, they’re evidently not socially respectable women who will be putting on dinner parties then.
I’m not sure how this advice helps me now while I’m settling into the biggest city I’ve ever lived in. Maybe the takeaway is to just get used to things that are really red. Like Husker fans and Republicans. Both things my old lady is. Two things I am not.
Obviously, moving and making a home is about more than football and politics. It’s about migration, which can mean a myriad of things, but its opposite is “to remain.” I don’t feel like I’ve ever remained anywhere for the right amount of time. Once I figure a place out, it’s coincidentally time to go.
Now, I live in an upstairs loft, and my new “old lady” is a 33-year-old guy named Ben who does business and marketing for Union Pacific. The day we met, he apologized in advance for not being able to live up to the charm of my old roommate. I’m glad he said it so I didn’t have to.
Apparently, I’m a little hardier than my sister’s geckos because I haven’t died after this move.
This time around, though, I decided things would be different. I’d be more adult. I’d finally fix my bed and make my old lady proud. Because for a solid six months, a mess of blue blankets from the Briar Cliff University bookstore covered my bed in her house. On about a hundred different occasions, I’d hear my old lady talking to her daughter on the phone about my slovenly ways. She’d wonder aloud, “How does she sleep like that?”
So, after moving to Omaha, I called my straight best friend, whose mother is an interior designer, and she drove me to Bed Bath & Beyond. I had found a comforter in the back of my closet in my new room. So, I decided to get fancy and buy a duvet.
When I got home, I opened the package and unfurled the oversized burlap sack on my queen-sized bed. I retrieved the down comforter from the closet and started stuffing it into the duvet. But the comforter wasn’t fitting quite right.
Because it wasn’t a comforter. It was a fitted pad, and it doesn’t belong in a duvet.
For someone who’s moved so often, I’ve definitely felt like a fitted mattress pad stuffed in the wrong place. Sometimes it takes time to find the right friends, the right job, the right neighborhood. Sometimes it takes six hours of Googling to find a comforter that fits the actual dimensions of your duvet.
So if you’re trying to figure out where you belong, I hope you know that it might not look like what you imagined. It’s not what I thought it would be. I’ve come to believe that home can be people. And you can be one of those people for yourself.
You are already home.
Odeis a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It’s produced by Siouxland Public Media.
Our next show is Friday, December 1 at ISU Design West in downtown Sioux City. We’ll have live music by Jessica Zepeda, starting at 7 p.m., followed by stories about “Holiday Joy & Mayhem.”Tickets are $10 in advance; $15 day of show.