During a gray day this past fall, my doctor gave me the cruel news that I needed toe surgery.
So I was left to ponder how I would manage to stay in my apartment, and off my feet, during a (long) two- to three-month recuperation. And how would Casper, my dog, get walked four times a day?
What does that have to do with the shoemaker’s son, you might ask. Well, the answer to that question is pretty much everything.
I had tried to avoid this surgery. My final chance was with Felipe Marin, who owns Mike’s Shoes on Central Street in Evanston. He worked at Mike’s for 40 years, the last four as the owner.
I sat, waiting, at the store while Felipe cut off the front of my shoe to take the pressure off my toes. I was grateful for his effort, but it was clear to me that the solution was not going to work in the winter months ahead. Felipe recognized that I would need something more as well, and perhaps that’s why, when I asked if he knew someone I might hire to help me if I had the surgery, he so willingly volunteered that his 21-year-old son could not only help me for a few months, but also live at my place.
“Neo is really a sweet and good person,” he said. “He works for me two days a week and he’s not going back to school until September.”
“How do you know he will want to do it?” I asked. And what’s more, I thought to myself, why would I want to do it? A 21-year-old young man in my place for some months and I haven’t even met him?
Felipe arranged for me to meet Neo at the shop. The one person he did not ask or tell about this plan, however, was Neo.
I walked into the shop, thinking Neo knew who I was.
Neo decided to play along with the joke he thought his father had set up.
He agreed without hesitation.
The surprising and lucky thing was that, even after he knew it wasn’t a joke, he still agreed to take the job to help me.
Later, after a few weeks into our experience, we talked about our apprehensions.
“I was worried that you might not like it and want to leave. Then, what was I supposed to do? Or what if I didn’t like you or if I didn’t like having you in my place? What if you were a 21-year-old party guy?”
Neo was worried that he might be homesick. He is one of nine children, five of whom still live at home.
“But I was ready to try something new,” he said. “And it sounded like I could do something good for you. Also, it was important to my father because he saw that I had a lot of ideas for things to do with my future but no real definite plans.”
And, as is the norm with his generation, he Googled me.
“I saw a picture of you and Casper and some information about you that made me think this experience was going to be good for me.”
The adventure began and the apprehensions faded. The elderly lady got her helper. The young man got his focus.
And so the fairy tale began.
Neo did have some regular tasks: walking the dog four times a day, cleaning dishes, organizing rooms twice a week, shopping and giving wheelchair rides in good weather. He also got used to me needing him and that gave him a position of responsibility even though he was so much younger than the person for whom he was responsible.
Sometimes we ate meals together. And that’s when our shared conversations took on surprising lessons.
For example, I learned how much a 21-year-old young man eats. After a week of sharing food, he told me that what he was eating was “only enough to sustain him.” I was embarrassed. That had to change. I gave him additional money to buy his own food.
More serious conversations followed. Neo asked me, “What do people your age think of people my age?”
He thought people my age might stereotype him and his friends as superficial and lacking commitment and substance.
I told him that people my age might think younger people don’t have any interest in or belief that older people know what people his age are going through so we get disregarded.
“Older people love when younger ones spend time with them,” I said. He was surprised but came to believe it over the two months he was with me.
Then I asked him the same question back: “What do people your age think of people my age?”
Perhaps, his willingness to have dinner with some of my friends was a part of what changed his perspective.
“I don’t have the opportunity to talk with older people,” he said. “At dinner, your friends seemed to like me and listen to me.”
The question of advice came up more than once. Often, I wanted to give it. Sometimes, he listened patiently and some times he tried to shut it down.
“I’m 21,” he said “and I need to be learning how to make my own decisions.”
“But older people want to use their experiences to protect you from making mistakes,” I would say.
“And that’s where younger and older people disagree,” he’d answer back.
Some of our topics were surprisingly revealing.
“People my age are worried they won’t be able to afford to get married, support a family and have a house,” he said.
It took me awhile to realize he was sure I didn’t understand what that meant for his future.
Our most interesting conversations were about friends and family. Neo asked if he could stay in the living room when I had visitors. I said of course. And he asked how much work it took to maintain friendships. I hadn’t thought about friendships in that way.
Neo’s father has 13 siblings and his mother has 11. And most of them are in Chicago. Neo has 85 first cousins.
Neo and his eight siblings all have dinner at his parents’ house every Sunday. Almost all of his social relationships come from family. Neither of us knows much about our ancestors. Neo explained that his great grandmother, who he only knows through a single picture, was an indigenous Mexican. Furthermore, he would not check “Mexican” on any racial identifications he fills out because Mexican is not a race. I told him that seemed the same as when people labeled Jewish a race, which it isn’t. And I can’t go further back than my grandmother in my family history.
For both of us, these backgrounds raised a common sense of confusion about our ancestors.
Role reversals happened unexpectedly. Neo sat in on one of my physical therapy sessions when the physical therapist told me I slouched and that I didn’t take big enough steps when I was using the walker.
The next day Neo commented, walking behind me, “You’re slouching.”
“What do you think about your step width?”
“I think it’s fine.”
“Too small,” he said.
But role reversals happen in other unexpected ways as well. I am getting better and Neo is leaving. It is the elderly lady testing her independence, not the younger man testing his.
And separation is not so easy. One of the things an older person knows is that separation, even after only two months and after close quarters, has its own defense mechanism, one of which is a bit of bickering or disagreement.
This fairy tale ends the way all good fairy tales do. The elderly lady and the shoemaker’s son did it. They lived with each other. They spent good time together. She got her needed help. He became a more confident young man. And they showed each other a clearer view of the road to Happily Ever After.
Thank you for a refreshing look into a kinder gentler world. So much attention is paid to violence we begin to think that it is the norm. It isn’t. Stories like Cissy’s and Neo’s merit more exposure.
This article is a beautifully heartfelt description about such an experience. Throughout the few interactions I have seen between you and Neo I have felt inspired and touched by the connection/relationship the two of you have built. I just know that this is not the end of the Neo, Casper, and Cissy trio but simply a see you soon. Thank you for sharing such an incredible story!
My heart sings knowing there is still goodness in the world! Thank you for sharing their adventure with us.
wonderful story. It would be great to do a follow-up in a year or so to see what Neo is doing. Margaret Lurie
What a wonderful story! Building relationships is complicated and this captures the tentative process of building relationships. The best relationships are reciprocal—- but we don’t always know what we will get or give when we start.
This story is an absolute delight to read. What a wonderful duo. The intergenerational mix is charming. Neo sounds like he will do very well in life. I am so admiring of both of you for your willingness to open up to one another and to the rest of us. The nuggets shared from you concerning your lives and relationship, and how you both learned from one another should be a model for us all.
This is a wonderful story. It could easily be of interest to every senior, perhaps be published in the AARP magazine.
What a wonderful good news story, on all sides! And talk about connections: a shoemaker and an elderly lady then enter in a teenager! Let’s seek out some other such stories/promote other such interactions in our community!
Cissy, this article was wonderful. It made my day!
Thanks for sharing your lovely story, Cissy. When I was growing up in Evanston, many of my first jobs included helping senior neighbors on the 2500 bock of Ashland, (Mrs. Cramer, Miss Parks, Mrs. Wheeler and Mrs. Crunden) errands, snow shoveling, lawn mowing and household tasks. I learned a lot from our visits.
I’ve been temporarily disabled lately myself and have benefited from the kindnesses of specifically our nextdoor high school aged brother and sister, and their folks, our friends and family. Im happy to have experienced a similar spirit as in Cissy’s story. Thanks to PJ and Frances! The next time I’m in Felipe’s I’ll hopefully meet Neo and recognize his, Cissy’s and Casper’s story.
Wonderful story! Neo sounds like a one in a million person!
What an extraordinary true story — not a fair tale — about two opposing generations brought together for a common goal and becoming friends. The time the two of you had together was transformative and will live on in your memories and become part of your family history.
This is a great, heartfelt story! Thanks for sharing this, Cissy. And thanks to Neo, too.