It all began yesterday, when Mrs. Nobody lost the key to her apartment.
Mrs. Nobody is my next-door-neighbor, and I am calling her Mrs. Nobody because her real last name is just one letter away from the German word for “nobody” (niemand). Mrs. Nobody is also a fitting name for my neighbor because of her age and gender.
Although I had heard about the “invisibility” of elderly women before, I had never thought much about it. This was probably because I myself was guity of making these women feel so invisible.
Anyways, here is everything I knew about Mrs. Nobody before the day she lost her key:
• > 70 years old
• Takes taxis everywhere
• Gives us candy and cookies when we take her garbage out for her
And that’s about it! Considering we have lived next to Mrs. Nobody for over 3 years, I’d say this is pretty pathetic.
So, as I already said: this story began when Mrs. Nobody lost the key to her apartment.
It was 6:00 p.m. on a Tuesday, and Marco and I were both at home. Actually, we were sitting at the dining table, listening to jazz music, and talking about our plans for the week. No, this is not a normal thing for us, but it sure did make us look [at least somewhat] sophisticated for what happened next.
Our doorbell rang, and Marco got up to answer it. I could hear Mrs. Nobody’s voice, nearly in tears, as she was describing how she lost the key to her apartment on the way home. Marco had to ask at least five times before she finally agreed to come in.
As she sat down at the dining table, she asked if we have a phone book.
“I need the number for Herman Koch,” she explained. He lives about a block away, and he keeps a spare key to her apartment.
Since we are under 70, Marco and I don’t have a phone book, but I was able to find his number online. Mrs. Nobody called, but there was no answer. She was obviously distressed.
“Okay, well, I will go then.”
“Where are you going to go? You’re not going to wait in the hallway! Just wait here. I can make tea.” replied Marco.
“Oh no! No, I won’t be a bother. It would be nice if I can wait here, but I don’t need any tea.”
So, we all settled in a bit, and Mrs. Nobody began recounting how she went to knitting class earlier that evening, and she must have dropped her key in the taxi on the way home. She was happy that we were home, because she knows that Marco comes from Southern Germany, and before she rang our doorbell, she was thinking that we might be down there.
Marco explained that we don’t travel to Southern Germany as often as we would like to and then moved the conversation along by telling Mrs. Nobody that I am from even further away.
“You’re from Chicago? That’s nice! My son lives in Maryland.”
“Oh really?” I said, quite intrigued at the first bit of personal information I was learning about my neighbor, “Did he move there for work?”
“No, he was born there.”
Mrs. Nobody was just slowly laying out a trail of breadcrumbs at this point.
“So, you lived in the U.S.?”
She smiled a bit and nonchalantly replied, “For 35 years.”
I’m going to be honest here: when I see an elderly person in Germany, I usually assume that they (1) can’t speak English and (2) haven’t traveled outside of Europe. But Mrs. Nobody was shattering these assumptions.
“And what did you do in the U.S.?” I asked, desperately wanting to know more.
“Well, when I first moved, I got my Master’s Degree at Brown University.”
My jaw dropped to floor, and Mrs. Nobody just started laughing. I looked at Marco across the room and said “That’s an ivy league university!”
“Yeah, I’ve done more than most people think!” she said.
Mrs. Nobody went on to explain that she is used to people assuming that she isn’t capable of very much or that she didn’t accomplish very much in her life. Just last week, she said, her doctor wanted to learn a little bit more about her. She told her story of moving to the U.S. 50 years ago to get her Master’s degree at Brown, and he had a similar reaction.
“I never would have thought that you studied at a university!” he had said to her.
“Well, it is something that people do.” she replied.
Basically, Mrs. Nobody moved to the U.S. about 50 years ago (when she was in her 20’s), got a Master’s degree, married, had two children, and moved back to Germany in her 60’s after a divorce. Still wanting to work, she got a job as a German and integration teacher (without any previous teaching experience). She ultimately retired due to “technical reasons” – i.e. she refused (and still refuses) to use computers.
Now she lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment and is known as “the woman who always takes taxis.”
“It’s not because I have a lot of money,” she explained, “I just can’t lift up my legs high enough to get in the bus.”
So with her family so far away, most of her time is spent alone. And acquaintances that don’t take the time to get to know will just assume that she led a boring and simple life – even though that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Oh, and remember when I said that one of the things I knew about Mrs. Nobody was that she gives us sweets when we take her garbage out for her? Well, look what was in front of our door this morning.