I was sitting quietly outside on this beautiful Spring evening. Now in my 40’s, living comfortably as a college professor, it seems odd to me when pieces of my life…times that even now seem distant…flit through my mind. It has been pleasantly mild here this year, and the evening air reminds me of June evenings in upstate New York more so than the usual warmth already rising in Virginia. I was thinking about my favorite summer past-times: Shakespeare in Delaware Park, visits to the waterfront, outdoor dining. Then, suddenly, I had a glimpse of a simple moment: sitting on the tiny patio of my second story apartment with my room-mates, talking and laughing and imagining what we might do with our lives post college.
As is typical for me, I was the planner who made the arrangements and had selected and signed the lease for our shared apartment. It was about a mile and a half from campus, in a neighborhood that was largely residential. The apartment was diagonal from a large Catholic Church, and there was a steady presence of neighborhood police even though there were some rougher streets a block or two away. We were a group of four women between the ages of 19 and 21 who were on our own for the first time. We had left our secluded religious college in the country and transferred to a state school to finish our social work degrees. We were young, foolish, broke, good-hearted, angst-filled, and naive…all rolled together.
After (quite literally) begging the apartment’s owner to rent to a group of young collegiate women and signing the lease myself, I set off to find furnishings while my friends were home visiting parents while I set up shop over semester break. In this time before email and Instagram, I would write them and send photos of the space emerging, sometimes asking for contributions but mostly furnishing the place for next to nothing from garage sales and junk piles. My favorite acquisition was a huge, long sofa that I purchased for $10 that would seat five, easily. It was hideous…yellow, green, brown, orange paisley…but the solid wood frame was classic. I recovered it with old sheets and a huge vintage chenille bedspread and took pride in my thrifty and eclectic decor. It remained the centerpiece of our living space for as long as we lived there…possibly because it was so large we never wanted to move it again!
My roommates and I had a very tenuous relationship. We were in various degrees of maturity and responsibility, had very different lifestyles, and generally were not a well-suited group to be sharing space although we managed out of necessity. I thought myself the responsible one; I came across as the bossy one. My fun-loving room-mate who was a great friend in our dorm never paid me her share of the rent, and there were no amount of meetings that got us to a point where we all just got along on a consistent basis. But there were moments where we set it aside and just had fun. Those were the good moments of being 20, and one of those moments floated into my mind tonight.
That particular summer evening, we sat on the patio (without chairs, since we had no chairs) sipping Bartles and James and telling stories under a big, full moon. We ignored the phone and the bills and our school work and were simply soaking up the joy of the summer evening. We were laughing like 20 something’s should when the police car pulled up, and told us our landlord had called us in for disturbing the police, and because we wouldn’t answer our phone. I was mortified, and my friends were angry…at me! “Why did you rent in the stupid neighborhood with this control freak landlord??” I cringed, and I fumed. “Why did you “forget” to pay your share of the rent for the past two months and assume I would cover for you?!” I shot back, loudly. The peace had ended. I stormed off to my room, then remembered I shared it with the room-mate with whom I was arguing. UGH! I was about to storm out to my car when our phone rang. No one answered it, of course. So, I exited my room to pick up the receiver. I was, after all, the responsible one.
“Hello?” I answered. The heavy, Italian accent on the other end told me it was not our landlord, but our neighbor, Mrs. Latona. “I need you to come over, I toss you the key.” I groaned a little, but walked outside where she was in her kitchen window, reaching out to toss down her key to me. I caught it and let myself in as I often did, whether to pay rent on the garage I rented from her, or when she needed a favor. She was in her 90’s and lived alone. Her family visited, but she wanted to keep her independence. I learned from her stories that she and her now deceased Sicilian spouse were quite “connected” to the family network. I feared her, respected her, and admired her.
Mrs. Latona was making instant coffee and had already set out two anisette cookies for me. “Maria call me,” she said. She was referring to my landlord. “Sit down…you need coffee, and I don’t sleep so I need some, too.” I complied and she poured hot water over instant espresso. “She ask what you girls doing, the tenants downstairs said you keeping them up, it late at night. I tell her you good girl, just talking with your friends.” I sighed. “Thanks, Mrs. Latona. I don’t think she likes us very much.” My neighbor laughed. “The old don’t like to be reminded they aren’t young any more. I tell her you are good girl, tell her not to worry.”
I was silent, and emotion choked in my throat. I sipped the coffee and nibbled at the cookie. I looked at my neighbor, suddenly realizing how she had gone out of her way for me, for no real reason. “This is really nice of you.” I managed to say. “Let me tell you a story…” she began and I listened to her tales of being 19, a young bride who immigrated to the United States. I heard her stories often, and tried to imagine her as my age now…or me as old as Mrs. Latona some day. We seemed worlds apart. But, what I heard in the story was something different: what we held in common. She held together her family, mean and nice members alike. She wasn’t always happy, but she found a way to make it work. She learned it was better to be respected than to try to always be liked. She always kept her word. She learned to have good instinct for who she could trust, and who was just playing her. She kept friends close, and enemies closer. And she knew how to read situations beyond the superficial.
We finished our coffee and our cookies were just crumbs. I noticed the lights go out in my apartment across the street. I took our tiny cups and saucers to the sink and washed them for her while she wiped the table. I thanked her again and she smiled and nodded toward the window. “They are sleeping and you should, too. You will all be friends again in the morning. Don’t worry about Maria, I tell her that I didn’t feel well tonight and tomorrow I say to her that you came to sit with me. She knows you are a good girl, don’t worry about her.” I smiled and said thank you. She pointed to a pile on her chair. “Oh, and my daughter forgot, my sheets needs to be washed, can you take them to the laundry for me tomorrow?” Of course I would. “Any time, Mrs. Latona'” I said.
I carried her bundle next door and climbed my stairs. It was quiet and I slipped in. My room-mate asked me from under her covers where I had been. “Mrs. Latona needed some help.” I said. She groaned, “Its always something.” Yes, it always is. “She’s a nice woman” I said. “Well, I’m glad you’re OK, I was worried about you” my room-mate quietly said, as she rolled over.
Yes, it is always something. But caring for each other is what makes the world a place of hope. Caring, even when frustrated. Seeing the person, the heart, the soul of the person rather than their problems and flaws. I drank that in with my late night coffee and timeless stories.
Yes, it’s always something. Sometimes it’s the exact help you need, at the exact time you need it.
Remembering Mrs. Latona, serving up your small points of light in demitasse.