My 73-year-old college roommate

Sunday 9th October, 2022

Most high school students glamorize college life-dorm life, the parties, the independence. They are anxious to have a little corner of a dorm room to call their "own," or at least, to share with a few other really cool people who they can only imagine will, of course, be lifelong friends. And hopefully, at the end of this epic-four-year adventure, the student will have her degree, a prestigious resume, a network of contacts, and a fiancé from a neighboring fraternity.

And all the moments have been #captured-keg stands, tailgating, cute homecoming outfits, formal dances, service work opportunities, and the obligatory late-night/early-morning-look-at-us-we-survived-another-rager group selfie.

That was not my version of college - as I envisioned it or as I lived it.

Maybe I'm just not most people. I was never the little girl who dreamed about her wedding. The thought never crossed my mind. I also never imagined a future with kids, a house, and all the other traditional life experiences. Therefore, when I thought about college, I thought about it as simply the next step, something I needed to do, a box to check off in the list of things-to-do in order to be a grown-up and to create the "rest of my life".

I wasn't anticipating it as an "experience" or as some great coming-of-age. I didn't need or want the independence other young people were looking for from their parents; after all, I am a middle child, and we all know the middle children get lost in the shuffle. Interpretation: When I was growing up, my parents had their hands full, and I was the least of their worries - therefore, I am synonymous with independence.

And as for the traditional dorm experience, trapped in a stuffy, outdated brick building, sharing a communal bathroom with other people my own age, some of whom might be hung over, might have diarrhea because they miss their parents or have eaten too much cafeteria food, or might be "experimenting" in the bed next to me - not my idea of glamorous. No amount of matching bed-in-a-bag linens, cutesy throw pillows, coordinating school supplies, Christmas lights, or perfectly-staged snapshots of friends and family could make me want to kibbutz with co-eds my own age, let alone, in cramped spaces.

I knew that kind of tomfoolery just wasn't for me.

But, what to do? Long story short - live with an old person - that's more my speed. Senior citizen shenanigans are much more tolerable to me.

So, I packed up my car - with my parakeet (She-Ra, Princess of Power) in her cage in the backseat - and my grandfather and I drove almost 900 miles from my parents' home in the southern US so I could move in with him in the northeast US. (Side Note: The car broke down four hours into the trip, on a Sunday, and we had to find a gas station that was open, in the middle of a honkytonk town, a mechanic who was willing to fix the car, and a place where we could house my parakeet while the work was being done.)

It was the beginning of a beautiful, hilarious adventure.

Before I moved in with my grandfather, my mom's dad, my mother's words to me were, "If you lock my father in the basement and take over his house, Lisa Ann, so help me God." Who me? Be domineering? No way. While I do like to take control of the situation, and maybe even someone's living quarters, locking them in the basement is a bit extreme, even for me. Nonetheless, I got her point, and I'm better when people give it to me straight, with language and analogies I can understand.

The first night we lived together, I walked downstairs in the middle of the night, fumbling, needing to use the bathroom. On the way to the bathroom, I pass the kitchen, and I see the silhouette of my grandfather, standing at the fridge in his Diplomat pajamas and house shoes, chugging out of a jug of orange juice - our orange juice. BLASPHEMY! Clearly, he's lived alone for a while.

"Donald! What are you doing?" I gasp in horror, appalled that this man is drinking out of the orange juice in HIS fridge. But now I live here, so how dare he?

He turns around, looks at me, and I catch his toothless smile in the moonlight coming through the tiny kitchen window. I HAD NO IDEA HE HAD NO TEETH. This man wears dentures? How did I not know this? I have moved in with a toothless, old man who puts his mouth on the orange juice container? These were looking like dark times, like I might as well have signed up for the dorm, pledged a sorority, and given in to all things at the University of Stereotypical.

After we encountered each other in the kitchen, during the wee hours of our first night, we both knew we needed to establish some boundaries regarding our living situation - to be fair, it had been years since he had lived with an 18-year-old young (all of his children had left the nest around that age), and I had never lived with a senior citizen for more than a weekend.

His concerns were old-man obvious: I needed to get a job ASAP and work while I was in college, I needed to be mindful of how much electricity I was using (including not using an entire cycle of the dryer to fluff my clothes), I had to make sure the TV was free at a certain time for the PBS News Hour, and I had to set the burglar alarm when I came in at night (this meant putting an old, metal 1970's style living room lamp in front of the door so that we would hear it crash and probably start on fire if anyone tried to break in). Oh, and he also had a special deal to make with me - he'd buy a desktop computer (this was the late 1990's), and I wouldn't have to drive to campus to work on all my papers, IF I taught him how to use it.

I agreed to all of the above, and I complied mostly. I was excited about the computer, until I had to teach him step-by-step how to not just turn it on and use a word-processing program, but also how to download horse racing forms, print them out, and engage in online betting. This was not a task for the faint of heart, especially when dial-up internet was a thing, and I was in the midst of my own budding internet romance.

However, living with my grandfather meant that I had the best 70-some-year-old college roommate a person could ever dream of. He'd sip his Port wine at night, while listening to the Andrews Sisters or to Mitch Miller, and he'd tell me stories about his experience in the military police, about being on the beaches at Normandy, about wooing my grandmother, about living through the Great Depression, and about raising his children in a different era. We would debate politics and religion, and he would try and teach me about money ("Lisa, you will never save any money and get married if you keep buying fast food."). I wish I had listened to his advice a bit more closely.

Sometimes we fought about the TV or how much cabbage he steamed, which made the house smell like a colossal fart. Sometimes I would have to apologize for being ungrateful because his food tasted like moth balls since he stored the macaroni in the basement and then tried to make me dinner with that potent pasta. Sometimes he needed so much help on the computer, and I wasn't the most patient person.

But we were best friends, and even best friends have their moments.

While I was in college, working hard to get a bachelor's degree and then a master's degree, here I was, also in my grandfather's home, getting the most valuable education a person can ever attain. From Donald, my dear grandfather, I learned how to argue and debate without yelling, I learned how to sit and converse, to revel in the moment and to learn from the past experiences of older, wiser people-even if they tell the same stories over and over, and even if those messages are things your young mind doesn't want to/isn't ready to hear. I learned that being frugal doesn't mean you are cheap, and the squeaky wheel really does get the grease, especially if the wheel is greased with honey. I learned the art of making a proper cup of tea and enjoying it multiple times a day. I learned that tea tastes better when an old man makes it, even if he isn't wearing his dentures.

And you won't die if someone drinks out of the orange juice jug. Sometimes you just need to smile, with or without your teeth in, remember that you're in the presence of a true legend, and embrace a nontraditional opportunity to get the best education of your life.

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