My second year in Boston, I lived on the third floor of this cute little multi-family home in Brighton. I found it on Craigslist just in the nick of time – and ended up with two guys who were a little older than me. Perfect roommates, really. We divided up chores and everything.
The homeowner lived on the first floor of the building. That was Peggy (short for Margaret). The home – built in 1920 – was her childhood home; Boston was all she ever knew. By the time I met her, she was in her mid-80s. She dealt with a lot of pain. She couldn’t make it up the stairs anymore, not even to the second floor where her sister Rita lived. So she spent just about every day, all day, at home on the first floor.
I didn’t see her much at first. I could tell that she was awake from the sound of the television when I entered the building to get to the main staircase. But I only ran into her once in a blue moon, out on the walkway. See, once a week or so, her nephew or someone from a private transport company would come by, pick her up to run her errands, get her medicine, and so forth. It was a laborious process, the transfer from home to car, and eventually back.
Peggy was fragile. She couldn’t move without a cane or a walker. She could grab her mail from the table in the space between the front door and the door to her unit, but someone would have to get it from the mailbox and place it there. She’d be able to drag her garbage out onto the front porch, but her nephew would have to sort it and take it from there to the curb.
Eventually, I started doing some of this. I don’t know why. I guess I could see her nephew seemed a bit rushed every time he came by – the guy had his own family in another part of town, and clearly had his hands full helping Peggy and Rita out with other things. I figured it wasn’t a big deal. The trash was on the porch, and I had to take our own from the third floor to the curb anyhow. The mail was even easier.
I suppose this was how our relationship really started. The nephew noticed and thanked me one day. So did Peggy, separately. Eventually, unofficially, her trash and mail became my domain. We still didn’t see each other too often, her being inside most of the time, but she would make it a point to meet me by the stairs every once in awhile. We chatted about little things. That’s how I learned about the house.
Peggy had always been alone – never been married or had kids or anything like that. She had Rita, and Rita had children, and that seemed to be good enough for Peggy. I remember vividly her recapping a family reunion she had just attended outside of Boston, and talking about how nice it was to be reunited with cousins and nephews and nieces and grandnephews and grandnieces and so forth. It was the happiest I’d ever seen her. It was also the only time she left the city in the year I lived there.
We didn’t have deep talks or anything. She was a pretty hardened soul, kind of a cantankerous personality – a true Bostonian. She asked about my work a bit, and would ask about my mom every once in a while (they would meet briefly when my mom visited, but the language barrier prevented anything more than polite greetings). Mostly, we talked about my flatmates. She didn’t like one of their girlfriends – that was a pretty regular source of conversation.
Boston, as I said, was all she ever knew. I like to tell the story about how she excitedly told me once that some Chinese people had moved in across the street a few houses over; the implication that I would become fast friends with them. I found it endearing; her way of connecting to me. I have a feeling she wasn’t exposed to too much, didn’t travel too much. Obviously by that point in time, it was out of the question.
I would think of my grandmother whenever I saw Peggy. My grandmother, at that point nearing 90, still managed to take herself down to the park every day, where she would do some exercises and chat with her best friend. Then she would come back up to the apartment she and my aunt shared, fix herself lunch, take care of laundry, nap and fiddle around before my aunt returned from work.
It was about that time that my grandmother suffered a bad fall. After a period of rehab, she continued with her routine, but it became a lot harder. It got especially difficult after her best friend couldn’t take care of herself anymore, and was finally moved to a home (at 96!). Still, my grandmother managed. And knowing that reality, as compared to the one I saw Peggy live through every day, just seemed so surreal.
Peggy loved having me as a tenant. She would tell me this from time to time. Ours wasn’t a particularly special relationship (I don’t think I went above and beyond, really), but she appreciated that I would always pay the rent before the first of the month, would chat with her once in a while, would take the time to help her with some chores.
I got the fellowship in Tokyo while I was living in Boston. So I had to tell Peggy I’d be leaving, a month ahead of my lease’s end. She invited me into her home when I gave her the heads up. It was the first time I sat inside her place. She was saddened, of course, but excited for me too (if a little apprehensive). She told me a little about a nephew who had spent some time in Japan, loved it there, I think married a local.
We chatted some more that day. A little about her pain, about her day-to-day. There was a resignation to the conversation. Then, unprompted, she told me she wouldn’t charge my last month. It was the only way she could thank me for everything, she said. She insisted on it.* She said she didn’t want to get too emotional at that point, so I gave her a hug and left. I promised to visit her if I ever came back to Boston.
*I ended up slipping her half a month’s rent and giving her a farewell gift.
I never got the chance to visit these past three years. Once when I was in the States, I called, and we chatted, briefly – conversation never either of our strong suits. Every once in a while though, I’d send over a postcard, an update. Peggy wrote back just once: a Christmas card that she admitted was overdue. I have that letter somewhere. She mentioned that she really didn’t write much. She gave an update: not much had changed, and most of it was about my former roommates. But I treasured that I got her to write.
A week ago, my sister told me that my now 94-year old grandmother had been diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer. She has a few months left, at most. I was fortunate to visit a couple of times when I lived in Japan; I’m not sure I’ll be able to return again before she moves on. I was never too close to my grandmother, moving from Hong Kong when I was six years old, but she’s my last surviving grandparent – and the only one I’ve had since I was two. I’m 33 now. It’ll be tough.
Today, I got a text from one of my old roommates. He informed me that Peggy had passed away a week ago, surrounded by family after apparently suffering a stroke. She was 88. I’ll miss her.