On the porch of a house covered in chipped white paint, on the corner of the street just one block from my co-working space in Memphis, Tennessee, sat an old lady. And by sat I mean she sat there all the time. She was there every time I biked past, early in the morning, back and forth for lunch, and home again for the evening. As everyone did in Memphis, she waved to me each time I passed by—a far cry from New Yorkers whose main goal in life is to avoid eye contact with everyone.
So I waved back, because if a cute old lady waves at you and you don’t wave back, you might be the biggest jerk ever to exist. But day after day, wave after wave, it began to feel weird to not stop and say hello. How many times can you wave and not actually speak without it getting awkward? And I was curious about her. Who was this old woman who sat on this porch in her rocking chair, her hands folded nicely over her stomach as she rocked, waved, rocked, waved? So one day, I stopped my bike and said hello.
“Sit down,” she said immediately, and gestured to the empty rocking chair next to her. I was a little nervous, but she seemed kind. And she was old, so if she tried to murder me I could just push her over and run away. So I sat.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Katie, I’m Edna. I am ninety-five years old. Damn, I’m old,” she said, her eyes crinkled with a smirk.
Up close, I could see every line on her pale face. Her white hair was short and wispy and stood out in odd spots. Her hands seemed strong yet soft, and I noticed she had nice nails with a layer of clear polish making them shine. Her eyes were bright blue, and she had only one tooth in her mouth holding on for dear life to survive.
She kept rocking in her chair as she gazed peacefully out to the street in front of us and dove right in to filling me in on all the details of her life, like we were new and old friends all at once. She told me she was from a tiny mountain town in Eastern Tennessee, where if someone in the community misbehaved or committed a crime, the men would throw them off a cliff to take care of business themselves. Sounds charming! She was the oldest of eight children, and they all lived in a trailer. Her mom died young and her dad was abusive. So when she was fifteen years old she decided she had enough. She went to the local preacher, he gave her ten dollars, and she took a bus to Memphis and never looked back.
I asked Edna if she had family nearby. She told me she had her neighbor Monty. He would come check on her every single day. He was in his forties and lived with another man a few houses down. “They are just roommates—the prices of living are so high these days,” she said, but I couldn’t help but wonder if that really was the case. She told me how Monty would bring her food, take her to the doctor, even cut her nails and hair when she needed it. He did everything for her beyond what the state services provided. The only relation was they were neighbors.
She stopped rocking then, looked me straight in the eyes, and said, “I just take it one day at a time. That is all you can do. Take it one day at a time, and just do the best you can.”
She repeated that same sentence to me the next day when I stopped by, and again the next day, and the next day, and the next. Just take it one day at a time, and do the best you can. Going to see her quickly became my favorite thing to do as we rocked and talked, and she repeated that mantra I so desperately needed to hear. She had no idea how her example of strength and frequent reminders to take it one day at a time and do the best you can were keeping me going during some of the hardest few months of my life.
But for as much old-timey stories and sage advice Edna doled out, she was full of jokes too. One day she looked at me and said, “Hey, watch me do my exercises.” She stood up and shook her butt around like she had a bug in her underwear. Another day I walked up, and she said, “Sit down, you old heifer,” with that same mischievous twinkle in her eye. We called each other “old heifers” every time we saw each other after that.
She told me the most ridiculous stories about being old. She said one day while on the porch alone she got warm and peeled off her sweater to just wear her pink T-shirt she had on underneath. She didn’t realize she actually took the T-shirt off with the sweater, and she sat topless in her rocking chair for an hour waving at passersby like usual before she realized she was half naked. She laughed so hard when she told me this story and just shrugged her shoulders as if saying oh well. Sometimes you find yourself topless on the porch. That’s life.
And then, on one boring, regular weekday afternoon, she stopped rocking and looked at me and said, “You know what? You are my best friend, and you are my family.”
Edna had no idea that like her, I was essentially all alone in Memphis. Yes, I had my wonderful, amazing husband, but he was working long hours, and me being depressed and going home to a dark, lonely old house was hard. My family was thousands of miles away, and I had yet to make many friends or any sort of reliable community. I felt very alone, except when I was sitting next to my fellow heifer. Just me and Edna, on that porch, rocking as the Memphis sun began to set, evening after evening. In those moments I had somebody, and she had somebody, and I think that meant something to us both.
So I told her she was my best friend too. And my family. And I genuinely meant it. I loved that woman, and she helped me keep my head above the water as I pulled out of depression and set down roots in our new city.
Cover image by Camylla Battani.