Tuesday, January 14, 2014
As my partner Ann and I walked in the door from delivering open house invitations to our new neighbors, the phone was ringing. I answered it.
"Hi. I'm Annabella. I’m your neighbor. I drink beer."
I responded, “Great! We’ll have beer. We look forward to meeting you!”
As if she thought I might not have understood, she said, “Not the hard stuff. Not wine. Beer.” I started to say something friendly and reassuring, but the line went dead. She just hung up, so I knew the phone call was over.
Annabella calls herself “colored” and I’m white. She was born in 1920 and grew up in New Orleans. I was born in 1964 and grew up in Raleigh. Annabella grew up in a poor family, while my parents were a doctor and a nurse. She didn’t graduate from high school. I have two advanced degrees. I grew up Southern Baptist, and she grew up Catholic. Annabella loved her husband, Brad, and I love my partner, Ann. Our lives have been very different in many ways, and we have been good friends since that phone call 18 years ago.
Both Annabella and I have slowed down over the years. Annabella’s “practically 94”, and her knee bothers her. She doesn’t hear well, and sometimes loses her hearing aids, so I have to shout to be heard. Sometimes she gets confused about the day. I’m almost 50 and have had two brain tumors over the last seven years. I have low vision, fatigue and balance struggles as a result of the tumors, neurosurgery and radiation.
We attend the Silver Sneakers class at the YMCA with other exercisers, who are mostly in their seventies and eighties. I am the youngest member of the class, and she is among the oldest. She is the best dressed, with matching shoes, hat, gloves, and scarf. Last Halloween, I dressed up as Annabella, wearing a gold hat with black polka dots (she had left it at our house after dinner one night), cute black and white sneakers, teal and black striped socks (a Christmas gift from her), and large rimmed purple glasses. I’m not sure that the other members of the class noticed that I was dressed as Annabella, but many told me how nice I looked.
In class, we sit in chairs, tap our toes and lift our weights to music. (Everyone whistles and sings along with “Everyone knows it’s Windy….”) For coordination, we throw rubber balls in the air and clap once before catching them again. In another exercise, our right feet circle clockwise while we snap in a counter-clockwise motion. The coordination is challenging, so we laugh.
Annabella always thanks me for introducing her to this class, and she thanks Ann for driving. Annabella says, “It’s important to say thank you and you’re welcome. ‘Don’t mention it’ or ‘No problem’—what is that?”
On warm, sunny days when Ann can’t take us to class, we walk on the path around the park down the street. I struggle going downhill, and she struggles uphill, so we’re slow. We rest on benches at the halfway mark and cheer for kids on tricycles.
As we sit, Annabella shares stories from her past. She was raised by her mother, who was "one hundred percent Cherokee Indian" and was quick with a switch, and her father, an African-American man who carried the family name of slave owners who owned his grandparents.
Young Annabella and her eight siblings did what they had to do to raise money. For a while, they raised alligators for a wealthy family. They’d feed the ‘gators by reaching way down into their throats, but the ‘gators never bit them. Annabella says that they knew where their next meal was coming from. She says, “We were poor, but we had fun. People would say to Mama, ‘Those are some beautiful kids!’ and Mama would say, ‘And they all got the same pa.’”
Just before the start of the Second World War when Annabella was nineteen, her fiancé, Brad, sent $13 for her to make the train trip from New Orleans to Seattle, where he was living. However, Annabella’s mother used the money to pay the rent: $14 a month. Brad sent another $13, and again her mother used the money for the rent. The next time, he sent a train ticket (smart guy), and Annabella finally took the train to Seattle.
Annabella was beautiful, with long dark hair and a shapely figure. She liked to dress well. Brad found Annabella a place to live with other ladies. When he took her to her new home, several men sitting in the foyer threw silver dollars in the air, wagering on Annabella. Brad told her, “Get your things. We’re moving you out of here. This place is for prostitutes.” She asked, “What’s a prostitute?”
Soon after Annabella arrived in Seattle, Pearl Harbor was bombed, and she became a riveter at Boeing. She'll still show you her muscle. She says that when mechanics needed someone strong, they'd call for "the Indian."
As we continue our journey around the park, we look forward to eating at Annabella’s favorite restaurant. The staff knows her, and she knows what to order: “that teepee thing” (chicken satay salad). The staff also knows that she likes her Bud Light with tomato juice.
At dinner she tells Ann and me about a time when a Boeing machinist who wasn't paying attention came so close to her head with his drill that he cut a part down the middle of her hair. She was not injured, but she was mad. Being a Catholic doesn’t restrict her from cursing a blue streak, which she did under the circumstances and repeats now. Other diners look over to make sure everything is okay. They smile when they see that it’s Annabella. Everyone here knows her name.
Another time when the three of us are at dinner, Annabella is upset about a good friend with Alzheimer’s. “She didn’t know her butt from a shotgun,” Annabella says, shaking her head. Her eyes tear a moment, but then she grins and lets go with a cannon-ball burst of laughter. Annabella reflects on her advancing age and says, “The Lord takes care of fools and mules. And I’m no fool.” When we have all gotten our beers, Annabella makes a toast: "Here's to those of us who are left."
Annabella’s not a complainer, but when she does have a gripe, she'll share it, quoting her mom: "If it's not one thing, it's two." Annabella says that young people have educated smarts, but old women have wits, and she points to her temple. Yes, Annabella has wits.
At the end of dinner, she says, “I’m going to live another ten years, and I’m going to LIVE. I’ve had a good life. When I go, you can say, ‘That was a semi-good woman.’” She adds, “I don’t want to die in my sleep. I want to moan. I want to reminisce.”
When Annabella learns that we celebrate Advent in our Methodist Church, she is surprised. “Oh!” she says. “Your church is a facsimile of ours!” She’s been a Catholic all her life, and she never misses mass, but she has supported Ann and me as a lesbian couple since we met her. When I ask about her support in spite of Catholic doctrine, she points to her temple again. She says, “I have my own mind.”
My disposition, like Annabella’s, is mostly sunny, but sometimes worries about the future cloud my day, or my heart aches with the losses I’ve experienced with my tumors. At these times, I feel old before my time, but Annabella keeps me rooted in the present, reminding me of how joyful it is to live. She keeps me young.
My life is richer because Annabella is my neighbor and my friend. I feel more loved in this world because she loves me. My life is fuller because she is in it. And our health challenges—her age and my limitations because of brain tumors—remind us both not to take one another or this time in our world for granted. We are slow and we have our struggles, but mostly we are grateful, to one another, to the people we love, to a beautiful world, and to a God who loves us.