When Lillian Fallon moved to New York City, she lived with her elderly aunt. What began as a house-guest relationship turned into a deep friendship that changed both of them.
Whenever I tell people about my living situation, I feel like I’m describing a sitcom. After the obligatory “what do you do, where are you from, where do you live” song and dance of the networking scene, I eventually say:
“I live with my 75-year-old aunt.”
Their response is usually one of surprise and confusion, so I just roll with it and add more bizarre details:
“Yeah, we’re quite a pair. She loves Eminem, hates Tom Cruise, jams out to Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ in the middle of the day, survives on chocolate ice cream and cigarettes, and talks about the cast of NCIS as if they’re members of the family.”
My aunt Pat is your classic, feisty old lady who never left the city. Standing at 5’3”, she’s as skinny as a rail, has a tuft of snow-white hair, and always draws her eyebrows on crooked above her large, glassy blue eyes. She always says “long story short” before a super long story, and swaps in “whatchamacallit” for nouns she can’t remember, making our conversations more like crossword puzzles.
I didn’t plan on living with my aunt Pat when I moved to New York. I was just starting out at a new job and I didn’t want jump into paying $2,000 a month for an apartment. So, I moved in with the intention of only staying a couple of months — and it turned into four years. I know, you’re thinking, “yikes” — and I, too, had many moments where I longed for my own place, but I stayed because I developed a friendship with my aunt that I think neither of us saw coming.
Prior to moving in with Aunt Pat, she and I had a purely Christmas/birthday card relationship. We would see each other on holidays and I would secretly countdown the days until she left. See, Aunt Pat isn’t always the easiest person to be around. She’s easily the life of any party (even in her old age), but she’s also easily slighted and holds a grudge forever. I have a cousin who’s been in the dog house for 10 years for not saying “hi” fast enough.
When I moved in, I was the first person to live with Aunt Pat since her husband passed away back in the late 1990s. She was devoted to her routine and every day I came downstairs, she greeted me like a house guest. We tiptoed around each other with niceties and polite questions.
Aunt Pat and I don’t have a lot in common, but we sure love ‘80s rock and that’s precisely what broke the ice. While eating at the table one day, I made a comment that I loved Def Leppard’s “Love Bites” playing in the background, and without skipping a beat Aunt Pat turned the radio on the highest volume. Before I knew it, we were engaged in a full-on kitchen dance party.
Cut to the montage scene of the sitcom Aunt Pat + Lilly: laughing while tuning into America’s Got Talent, eating Chinese food on the floor, taking trips out to Long Island, birthdays full of balloons and streamers, eating grilled cheese on snowy days, sipping on seltzer on hot ones, and of course, lots of singing and dancing.
I was amazed at how quickly Aunt Pat became a friend to me — someone whom I’d joke around with, cook dinner for, cry about boys with, and simply just be myself around. And I believe she felt the same because I definitely never heard her drop the F-bomb prior to our newfound friendship. She stopped being overly polite and started enjoying our time together.
But it wasn’t always dance parties in the kitchen. I started learning more about the darker parts of Aunt Pat’s life and how it affected her mental health. From taking on the role of Woman of the House at as a young girl because her mother died of tuberculosis; to burying her brother who suddenly died in his 20s; to then later burying her father, and then another brother; before finally taking on the role of nurse for her husband, who also died young — the timeline of her life was dotted with unexpected deaths. She had no children to console or care for her, and she lived alone for 16 years.
Sometimes Aunt Pat goes through periods of dark depression. One time while watching TV, an anti-depressants commercial came on and she stated “I hate life” out of blue. She stared at the floor, not demanding a response from me, but simply needed to say the words that were unspoken for so many years and weighing down on her.
I honestly didn’t know what to say, so I just tried to listen and offer comfort. When her depression overshadowed her days, and then weeks, I tried to cheer her up with food and positivity, but I learned sometimes a hug and listening to the stories of her youth was the only way I could help. Those periods of depression would eventually lift and she’d be back to dancing in the kitchen.
When we went home to my parent’s house for the holidays, I noticed something strange. My whole family treated Aunt Pat with the same formality I did before moving in with her. My mom, Aunt Pat’s sister, even did the cordial tip-toeing and overly conscientious routine of having a house guest. It was then that I realized I was Aunt Pat’s closest relationship.
I found myself frequently thinking about this unexpected friendship between a 27- and 75-year-old. Who would have thought that after years of family relationships, friendships, and marriage, that I — of all people — would end up being the nightcap to a long life full of many bitter drinks.
There was another time Aunt Pat opened up out of the blue — she said, “I don’t believe anything happens for a reason.” And while that may be an understandable conclusion for someone who’s lost so many loved ones, I couldn’t help but see the opposite in my own life — and specifically in a situation as unique as ours. I would have never picked living with my aunt Pat, yet there I was, choosing movie-and-junk-food nights over going out with friends. There I was, learning to be patient and understanding with someone I might not have given the time of day to in a different life. And there she was, laughing over shared meals and spontaneous dance parties after years of being alone.
I can’t deny the hand of God in all of this. Never before have I felt such responsibility for another person, nor realized my direct impact on someone’s life. And it was all as simple as learning to be open to someone with whom I didn’t expect to become friends.
I’ve been traveling a lot and living off and on in NYC, so I don’t live with Aunt Pat like I did before. But whenever I come back, she’s always bursting to tell me stories about her annoying neighbors and how much she hates that Jon Bon Jovi became a sell out for Direct TV commercials. When she hugs me and tells me, “I missed you kiddo,” I know she really means it. When I tell her I miss her, I really mean it too.