Yesterday evening my condominium buzzer rang. Since I wasn’t expecting guests I figured it would be my downstairs neighbor, Josephine, who uses it to summon me. There she was, standing at the bottom of the stairs that she doesn’t like to go up any more unless she has to because she is 97 years old. “Jan,” she said, obviously upset “can you help me? I can’t get my drapes back up.” Her drapes! She was hanging drapes! Of course I scooted down the stairs to help her out.
Josephine is the 8th Wonder of the World. A tiny Italian lady, just 100 pounds, from Taylor Street in Chicago, she moved out here to the burbs after being robbed 9 times by having her purse stolen off of her arm and robbed in her car. And just like her speech, she never stops. In the 13 years that I have known her she really hasn’t stopped any of what she does. She drives, heading to her large family gatherings carrying all of the homemade Italian foods she has cooked: hand made gnocchi, stuffed artichokes, Italian Easter bread and endless salads, desserts and pasta dishes with homemade “gravy” on them.
She cleans, only recently getting someone in who washes her floors for her, and her home is always immaculate. Every morning in the summer I hear her out there with the hose hosing off her patio and for good measure hosing down the tree trunks of the nearby trees. She is engaged in an ongoing struggle with the condominium management to come and plant grass there which has a hard time growing because it is in the shade. No giving up for her! On top of this, she also waits for an opportunity for all of the four of us neighbors to be gone at once from our shared garage, and then she hoses out the garage. She also will get out there and hand wash her car.
She sews her own clothes and elaborate shower curtains, bedspreads and gorgeous doll clothes, all without patterns. If her friends need any sewing done for them she is there to hem or replace zippers, free of charge. In the evening she spends her time crocheting hats, baby blankets or anything else that catches her fancy.
Josephine married young, “a beautiful Italian boy” from her neighborhood. He was killed in World War II when they were both 23, leaving her with a year old daughter. She never remarried, saying “I don’t want to wash somebody’s socks!” She lived with her mother who reached 101, taking care of her, and when she moved out here she moved with her older sister who subsequently got cancer and died at home, in Josephine’s care.
Last night when I went to hang her bedroom drapes she had a little step stool out. She was so upset that she couldn’t get the drapes hung up because she always takes them down to wash and iron them, and then hangs them back up. She couldn’t understand why she couldn’t do it tonight. I was astonished–those drapes on the rod were so heavy that I could hardly hold them up. I told her that the bracket was bent, making the whole operation very tricky. She finally decided that she felt a little dizzy and that it must have been the wine that she had drunk that made her unable to hang her curtains this time. The whole time she was lamenting over all that she had done for her grandkids, and great grandkids through the years, and that when she needs help no one is ever available to help her. She also lives in fear of asking for help because she is afraid that they will try to put her in assisted living. She is adamant that she will not go.
After I got the curtains hung, the showering me with thanks and gifts began. She gave me Christmas candles and Christmas candle holders that she didn’t want. She gave me a homemade cupcake and raspberry jello parfait that she had made that day. And she poured me a glass of wine and insisted that I sit and talk for awhile. Well, it is more like me sitting and listening and nodding from time to time because she never slows down, but she has some interesting stories. One of her great grandkids went to Hollywood to make it in acting. She has seen him on TV with bit parts in some shows, and he knows Sean Hayes of Will and Grace fame. Last night she was telling me how one of her friends was good friends with Mayor Richard M. Daley and that she would always cook for him when he was coming over to visit. I guess if you live so many years you accumulate some interesting experiences.
You also lose all of your family and all of your friends if you live so long. She showed me a picture with her on her 16th birthday surrounded by about 9 of her friends. Josephine is the only one left. She’s lonely sometimes, and scared sometimes, but she blesses every day that comes and says “I’m not ready to go yet!” I’m lucky to have known such an inspiring woman. May she live as long as she wants to in her beautiful home, doing the things she loves to do.