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Peggy at 99

When I moved in with Peggy for almost a year in 2009, she was 88 years old. This past January, Peggy turned 100. I haven’t seen her since 2013 or 2014, but we’ve miraculously stayed in touch over the phone despite her hopping states and retirement communities several times. We talk once or twice a year, usually by accident. I’ll be scrolling through my phone and will stumble upon Peggy’s number. I just hit dial whenever that happens, taking it as a sign to check in. Or she’ll just randomly call. Nobody else from Plantation, Florida calls me, so I answer.

Sometime’s she’ll ask, “Now who am I talking to?” Many great conversations have started that way. What I love about Peggy and her whole her generation is that they answer the call. They give human voices primacy over all other forms of communication.

I talked to Peggy a few days ago and her memory is slipping. Each time we connect, I’m certain it’s going to be our last conversation. And maybe I’m right. But dying is the least surprising thing this woman can do. It would be mundane in comparison to what she’s done in her life and the stories she’s told me.

Once when I was in college, Peggy went missing. The newspapers were piling up outside of her door and I was wondering how long to wait before busting through the door like Jim Rockford, or calling the cops. I walked out to get the mail only to see Peggy barreling through the condo complex in her bright red Cadillac with a white soft top, mud all over its sides.

I asked Peggy where she had been and told her I nearly called the fuzz. She thought that was absolutely ridiculous — “Listen. I went down to Rosarito with a couple of my girlfriends. A simply amazing time!” Apparently I worry too much.

I learned a great deal about Peggy and her past when I lived with her. Before I knew her personally, she was Norma Desmond — that peculiar older woman whose apartment was bedecked in red velvet and leopard print. I caught glimpses of her decor over the years whenever her door was open. Heck, sometimes it wasn’t even open. She’d hear me coming out and would open it to say hi or complain about Doug, our boob of a property manager.

I’ll sound like a burglar in training, but I liked peeping at the things behind her. The colors and textures of her place were very Hitchcocky — North by Northwest interiors with a touch of Vertigo mystique. The finery of her things left an impression on my aesthetic. I often see her art deco borderline kitch tastes in my choices of wall hangings, lighting, and finishes. The en suite of the guest room I stayed in was thoroughly Egyptian with a gold-embossed portrait of Nefertari, another timeless woman. I recently hankered for an Egyptian bathroom myself and realized it was Peggy playing in my mind!

Peggy served in WWII. She was in the WAVES — Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. In addition to her official duties, she sang in the unit and we once watched a VHS recording of a PBS documentary she was in. She just happened to be watching the channel one night when she spotted herself — “I just had the TV on and there I was!” She told me a long-winded story about calling the station to find out how she could get a copy of the documentary. Instead they told her when it would air again and she taped it. Peggy’s version of that story was 20 minutes long with a lot of arm waving and exclamation points.

We sat in front of the TV cum VCR set for at least a couple of hours rewinding and playing the scene with Peggy in it over and over again. “Hit pause, Swati!” — and she’d point at grainy black and white faces and tell me stories about each person. The part with her in it included two other women. They were all singing into one of those Elvis microphones. She had that coiffed hairdo, practical yet feminine. I was stunned by the clarity of her recollections. Peggy was as sharp as a tack. She still is — there is just a porosity in her memory now. She forgets who she’s talking to, large pieces fall away into the darkness of the past, perhaps irretrievably, and her stories run together.

Peggy also showed me her Navy uniform — a tightly fitted jacket, blouse, and skirt with a sweet round cap. She had an elaborate scrapbook her long-deceased mother had made, chronicling her time in the war. It included letters she had written home, pictures, brochures and flyers for dinners and events, ribbons, and other memorabilia. She wouldn’t let me touch it at first, or maybe she wanted to go through each page with me before letting me run wild through what was probably the most pivotal phase of her life.

I listened intently and then spent hours looking through that book, feeling both privilege and shame. How lucky I was to have time with this great woman, and how purposeless I felt in the face of her generation’s great accomplishments. All I was doing was waffling through graduate school. There were wars being fought, but I was untouchable.

Living with Peggy taught me how to worry less and live more. She made me feel weatherproofed, iron forged, and able to do it all alone. No other woman made me feel so secure in my identity and even my aloneness. After running with Peggy for a while, I felt sure that I’d make it, with our without a man. I felt like I had choices. My own mother, through no fault of her own, never made me feel that way. She wasn’t an American, but I was. Peggy somehow reminded me that I was free when I needed to be reminded of it the most.

Peggy had been married several times, but her relationships all ended tragically. It didn’t seem to bother her much at all. I think she thought of herself as a single woman even when she was in a relationship. Classic Peggy. Her husbands were all mythical figures in my mind — one was a nail polish magnate. He’s the one who left her all of the money her kids were going to steal once she dropped dead. Those were her words. She always advised me, “Now listen — don’t ever marry a poor man.”

I had dinner with Peggy once a week, usually on Friday nights. We had champagne at 3 pm, and plates of asparagus spears and small cuts of pan fried salmon. It wasn’t my typical fare, but it was memorable. I would sit at the small bar of her kitchenette in my street clothes, and Peggy would sit across from me right next to the sink in her satin robe watching the nightly news on a miniature white TV. We would listen and talk, and she would comment on how stupid the news was.

Once we had a rotisserie chicken she picked up from Costco. She tore a piece off of a whole bird with her bare hands and put it on my plate. As a mostly-vegetarian, I found it repulsive, but I ate it because Peggy grew up during the Great Depression in Norman, Oklahoma and never left a bite on her plate.

Her memories of that time were as crystalline and placid as a clear blue lake. Nothing she shared was harsh or jagged. Time softens the past, but Peggy is also an eternal optimist. I think one of the reasons she has managed to live this long is because of her attitude of acceptance. I never once sensed any resentment in her. Even during our most recent conversation when the pandemic came up, she was nonchalant about the whole thing. It’s our duty and privilege to live through hardship. Those are my words, but I know that’s what Peggy would say.

She talked about her mother and father only when I asked about them. I forget what they did for a living, but they worked hard and managed to put food on the table even during the depression. Everybody shared, and nothing was wasted. Norman was a pleasant place to grow up, but Peggy always knew she wanted to hit the town. The war was her way out. She was no stranger to train hopping in those days. “We just rode to the next station and back.” No big deal.

Peggy would fall asleep around 8 pm watching TV and I would study for my graduate school classes into the wee hours, uninterrupted, like William Holden sneaking out to write a screenplay. Sometimes, when I didn’t have an urgent reason to hit the books, I’d walk into her room as she was getting ready for bed and she’d tell me stories while she put her hair up in rollers and applied various creams to her strikingly youthful face. She usually had nowhere to go and nobody to see, but dressed to the nines each day anyway. Her brightly colored polyester ensembles were fully accessorized with patent leather loafers and jewelry. She always wore this ring I thought was so pretty — a flower bunch of diamonds. This thing could slice open a jugular easy. A part of me wishes I had stolen it just so I could have something of hers.

In fact, the best way I can describe Peggy is that she is the kind of woman you’d want to steal horses with. I read that somewhere once and never forgot it. I consider myself fortunate to know several woman I’d want to steal horses with and hope somebody out there feels the same way about me. I, too, want to be a Golden Girl on steroids. A few years ago Peggy had a 50s-something boyfriend at the retirement community. Single at the time, I was both awestruck and jealous that an almost-centenarian was getting more action than me. It was the first time I considered moving to a retirement community.

Peggy has since moved in with her daughter. The last time we talked, she complained about the noise at home and how she just wants to be on her own. She told me all about the new memory care community she is going to be living in by the end of the year hopefully, and said she’d mail me a brochure. I know she forgot all about that the second we hung up, probably along with the rest of our conversation.

I remember so much, though. When I think about Peggy and everything I learned from her — most importantly, how to design and live a life on my own terms as a free woman — I feel a gigantic enriched sense of possibility, not only in how much a life can contain, but how it can all be arranged in unpredictable and gaudy, but entirely acceptable ways. Everything that happened during Peggy’s life, which includes nothing less than a depression, a few great wars, the deaths of multiple husbands, moving from home to home, and now a global pandemic, is all ok to her. That somehow makes it all ok to me too. This sentiment is all I have of hers, and I realize it’s a great deal — more than what most people have.

I never mentioned why I lived with Peggy in the first place. One fateful day in 2009, I came home to a flooded apartment. Everything was destroyed and the whole place had to be gutted. I was standing outside in shock wondering where I could go, frantically searching for sublets on a then primitive iPhone. Peggy came out and yelled at me to grab a few things and head on over. I was moving in! In my daze, I listened even though my initial thought was — “Are you crazy?” It was one of best turns my life took. I got to know Peggy.

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