Most of my friends were climbing ladders into a sturdy adulthood, while the only job I could find was a gig teaching basic computer skills to senior citizens at a community center in Huntington, N.Y. I had grown up surrounded by seniors and appreciated their company, so I figured I could overcome generational differences with my new students. As a teenager, I fondly remember showing my grandmother how to navigate YouTube, searching for old movie clips with her as she regaled me with tales of how she had seen them in her youth.
In my computer class I applied my knowledge of classic films to connect with my students. On any given day, I would be showing one student how to search for pictures of Sophia Loren while helping another download Dean Martin songs to an iPod.
One particular 80-year-old student needed help putting together a PowerPoint presentation for a library event she was hosting. “I need to gather materials for a movie screening,” my new student Irene said to me. “Could you possibly come over and help me? I’ll pay you by the hour.” She seemed nice enough, and I needed the extra money.
Days later, upon arriving at Irene’s house on a cold January afternoon in 2011, I had no expectations beyond giving a lesson on Windows 7 and getting some cash in my hand. As I entered her home, she greeted me with the enthusiasm of a maitre d’ expecting a prized diner. “Come in! Sit, sit! Warm yourself up!” she said before I even closed the front door. “I have some coffee brewing and a plate of rainbow cookies waiting for us.” Her friendliness was endearing but a little disorienting. My friends never welcomed me into their homes this way.
I sat down at her kitchen table while she poured coffee into a mug in front of me.
“How do you take it?” she asked.
“With a little milk and sugar,” I replied.
“You know, only real Italians drink it black,” she fired back.
“Is that so? Well, I’m a quarter Italian,” I responded.
“I’m from Italy!” she told me. “My family came here through Ellis Island.”
I soon realized Irene’s telling me about her life was inevitable. What did I care if we weren’t sitting in front of a computer? I was getting paid by the hour either way. Plus, her company didn’t bother me. And the taste of thick, strong black coffee wasn’t so bad once I dunked a rainbow cookie into it.
My first meeting with Irene was surprising. She wasn’t jaded and didn’t resent me for my youth. She treated me as an equal at her table, where she held court for two hours, sharing stories about her life.
A recently retired teacher, she had started a new path showing classic films to local audiences at libraries and cinemas, and she wanted to incorporate PowerPoint into her presentations.
“I don’t suppose a young man like you has heard of ‘King Kong’ or ‘Citizen Kane’?” she queried.
“You mean Fay Wray and Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten? I love them!” I assured her.
She was stunned a young person knew the names of her Hollywood idols. “Well, could you help me find their pictures on the Internet?”
In the months ahead, Irene and I had computer sessions as I helped her compile images and video clips of old movie stars for her local screenings. Coffee breaks were still vital as we chatted about old Hollywood and her own history. Most of the time, I sipped and listened.
I discovered she was a world traveler, visiting most of Europe, as well as India and China during her years as a high school history teacher. She still longed to see more countries, including Thailand and Mongolia (which she eventually did).
As a half-Indian American, I’d always longed to visit India but was too nervous about flying. “It’s a big, beautiful world out there, kid,” she told me. “Don’t ever be afraid to take it on.”
She showed me photos of her three children, all of whom she raised alone after flying to Mexico in 1970 to get a 24-hour divorce from her husband, she said — “I was sick of him!” To her astonishment, all three were happily married.
I heard about how she attended college in the 1950s behind the back of her Italian-immigrant mother, who didn’t believe women should go to school, and how she paid for it herself by working nights as a waitress.
“I didn’t want to be told what to do,” she said. I admired her fearlessness.
Over the next few years, she invited me to assist her film screenings, asking me to create the PowerPoint presentations and even speak alongside her. I became both her student and colleague. Following each screening, she would ask me, “Raj, how do you feel? Tell them how you feel,” pushing me to be vulnerable in front of strangers. Though shy at first, I learned to convey emotions without apprehension. It felt freeing.
Irene’s confidence in me gave me the push I needed as I pursued a career in communications and event planning for arts and culture organizations. Wherever I worked, I helped organize and host community events and film screenings. At nearly every event I produced, Irene showed up to support me. Sometimes she was a fish out of water among the young, hip crowds. Other times, I hired her as the main attraction, presenting classic movies to audiences, young and old. Sometimes, we co-hosted.
Over the years, I became busier and coffee dates were less common, but our kinship never faded. At least one afternoon a month, I made sure to stop by Irene’s house for a mug of black coffee and a rainbow cookie. I’d stopped accepting payment from her long before, once our business arrangement turned into a friendship.
When I began dating my now-wife, Michelle, one of our first dates was spent at a local library screening that Irene was hosting. The film was “Sunflower” (1970), starring Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. Irene adored Michelle, and when we married eight years later, Irene sat at my family’s table. When her granddaughter got married, Irene asked my wife: “Can I borrow Raj for one night? I need a date!” I was honored to accompany her.
When the pandemic hit, I wasn’t able to see Irene for many months. She had entered her 90s and was too high-risk to see me in person. But in the summer, we gathered at a distance in her backyard, masks on, and the pot of coffee and rainbow cookies at center of the table. We laughed and gabbed across the deck.
We still chat on the phone each week. She tells me, “Your spirit keeps me going, kid.” I tell her, “I wouldn’t be who I am without you.” Our friendship is now a decade old — more than most friendships in my life.
This 90-year-old Italian maker of strong coffee taught me — a half-Indian guy six decades her junior — something I never would have believed before I met her: If your eyes are open, you never know where you’re going to find your best friend.
Raj Tawney is an American nonfiction writer, focusing on family, food and culture from his multiracial perspective.
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