Mrs. Murray, who lived in the trailer next to ours, was the first older woman I befriended.
Even the air inside her place was yellow. I can still picture her in the stale dark, hunched over like a plant bending back toward its roots. A blanket covers her knees; an oxygen tank wheezes beside her; a cigarette glows between her fingers.
To my five-year-old-self, Mrs. Murray seemed as old as the earth. It was hard to believe we were even the same sort of thing.
My brother and I spent a lot of time in her dim kitchen waiting for our mom to get home from some temp job or another. I don’t recall any particular warmth between us, but I do remember that whenever we knocked at her door, she always opened it.
We tried to repay her for that kindness. Mom snuck us in to redecorate with fresh wallpaper and hand-sewn curtains. We scrubbed and scrubbed at the decades of nicotine layered across every surface. I remember being surprised to discover that underneath, some of Mrs. Murray’s things weren’t yellow, after all.
Nell, on the other hand, was soft and kind-faced. Her place smelled of sugar cookies and rose-scented hand soap. Treasures were tucked into every corner: skeins of yarn, boxes of vintage beads, crocheted dolls with squishy plastic heads.
There were also romance novels stacked behind the wood-burning stove in her den –– the cheap grocery-store kind, with bare-chested men and buxom women fawning over each other on the covers.
I spent my 10-year-old summer sprawled across the shag rug, devouring every single one of those romance novels with mounting horror and delight.
Who knew such incomprehensible words could be made to hang together? A revelation. Even today, a whiff of rose-scented soap has the power to send the phrase “Out sprung his hot, pulsating member” looping hysterically through my head.
There has been an older woman for every stage of my life. They’ve made the best of friends. They’ve been where you are now and can guess where you’re headed next.
Mine have seen and done things I could never do:
One got a Ph.D. in physics and married a fellow physicist so she’d have someone smart to talk to.
One traveled to London, got roaring drunk, and ended up in a public bathroom with her foot stuck in a toilet bowl. “I wanted to explain myself to the nice folks who dislodged me, but I didn’t have an explanation. Still don’t.”
My newest friend often stops by to complain about the widowers in her bicycling club who pester her for dates. “They’re all too slow,” she says, “and I’m too old to ride my brakes for a man, ever again.”
But it’s Lydia I’ve been missing lately.
Lydia was my first friend in the Netherlands. She showed up at our door with a bag of toys to introduce herself; first she tried in Dutch, then in Italian, and then in French. As the confusion bloomed across my face, she laughed: “English? Of course.”
Many Dutch people share a love language: scheduling appointments. Lydia was no different; I often found notes tucked into our mailbox that stated, simply: Vrijdag, 13:30. I quickly learned they translated to, “Be at your house and have cookies.”
On her visits, Lydia taught me about traditional Dutch etiquette: never be late; never stay longer than 90 minutes; eat everything you are offered but do not ask for more; and do not be pushy with physical displays of affection.
Then she would stay for hours, eat every cookie in my house, and absolutely smother my children with wet kisses.
Lydia survived the Dutch famine of World War II. Her father died young; her husband died young; her beloved son died at 40 after falling off a ladder. When I met her, most of her friends were dead, too. She loved making new friends. “I don’t feel I am so very old,” she said, “until I pass a mirror.”
One afternoon, the two of us were drinking instant coffee in her kitchen. She launched into a story. She was a teenager on a day trip to Amsterdam. “I had a new skirt,” she sighed. “You should have seen my beautiful legs.”
She paused and recalled vaguely, “That was the same weekend the Nazi occupiers snatched my father off the street and threw him into prison.”
Wait, what? I pressed. What happened? Were you with him? Did they hurt him? How long was he in prison?
She waved my questions away like flies. “Don’t be annoying. That’s not the story I want to tell. I want to talk about my beautiful legs.”
That was peak Lydia. She had a way of dropping painful elements of her life into cheery little anecdotes. She didn’t want me to hover over the suffering, inspect it too closely, define her by it. She insisted on putting the lovely parts front and center and honoring her experience on her own terms.
The last time I saw Lydia was the day we left the Netherlands. We had just locked our apartment and were waiting, bereft, for a taxi to take us to the train station.
Lydia hobbled over in the cold winter rain.
“Farewells are important,” she told me, for my final lesson. “Never let the people you love depart without someone to wave them off.”
She was right. As we pulled away, it meant everything to look back and see her there, waving with all her might.
Someday, I’ll be an old woman, too, if I’m lucky. I’m almost ready. These are my top five takeaways:
Always open your door when children knock.
Make sure to have a stash of cookies and some sexy books.
Stop slowing down just so that men can keep up with you.
Hold lots of space for your gorgeous legs.
Show up to wave goodbye; it matters.
Do you have older female friends? What have you learned from them?
Meg Embry is a writer who got her start working as a journalist and editor in the The Netherlands. These days, she lives in Colorado, where she mostly covers higher education and career topics and uses her personal blog to muddle through her thirties. She also wrote for Cup of Jo about talking to kids about sex.
P.S. Visiting Joanna’s grandmother in England, and thoughts on aging.
(Photo by Brkati Krokodil/Stocksy.)