During her freshman year at Gonzaga, Sophie Telles took a course that required partnering with a Catholic Charities organization. That’s how she met 78-year-old Jenilee, a resident at the O’Malley House (senior apartments), who is now like her second grandmother. The class may be long over, but these two have an ongoing relationship, one that centers on Friday afternoon visits every week without fail.
The following is a collection of things shared when Gonzaga Magazine editor Kate Vanskike stopped by for a visit.
It’s been a month since Sophie last stopped by the O’Malley House before heading home to Southern California for Christmas break. Jenilee pulls Sophie into a bear hug and says, “How are ya, baby?”
In moments, they are resting in a small, cozy living room, and Jenilee launches into story mode.
“I had $900 in tickets – that’s just two tickets – for not having my disability tag in the car. The judge said he’d forgive those if I quit driving. So I quit driving. I wasn’t even depressed or upset about giving up my car. Until I didn’t feel well one day and had no way to run to the store for things to make me feel better. But my friends here, they really miss my car!”
Then Jenilee offers an update on the family, perhaps picking up where she and Sophie left off before Christmas. She has a great-granddaughter who is abusing drugs, whose baby was taken and given to her mother, Jenilee’s granddaughter. She’s glad the baby is staying in the family, and says, “I know they say you got to have tough love, but I can’t do tough love.”
Jenilee also has an older daughter with developmental disabilities. (Sophie clarifies later that Sue suffered brain damage after drinking cleaning chemicals as a young child.) “Sue had a child who was removed from her home and raised by her brother,” Jenilee shares. “Her son calls her Aunt Sue or sometimes even Gramma Sue.” She admits, “It gets confusing.”
Just as Jenilee begins to talk about the new apartment manager and her son (“he is the most handsome man”), there is a knock on the door and a spry, thin woman with a handkerchief tied on her head comes in and makes herself comfy in a big rocking chair.
“This is Charlie, my best friend of 50 years,” Jenilee says. “She just moved in [to the O’Malley House].”
I ask how they met.
“Charlie was a bartender. She poured it, I drank it.” They both chuckle.
“Our first escapade together was to the Lilac Parade with eight kids, back in the ‘70s,” Charlie adds.
They both have two sons and two daughters, and after raising them, enjoyed taking off on travels together. They list – and argue about – the places they’ve been to: Santa Fe, California, North Dakota, Lincoln City (Oregon).
“The Eye of the Needle,” Charlie says.
“Where was that?” Jenilee wonders. “Oh gosh, I can’t remember the name of it. Wasn’t it by Tombstone? Where’s Tombstone?”
“It’s not by Tombstone – that’s in Arizona!” Charlie corrects.
“Is that where you took me to that snake habitat?” asks Jenilee.
Charlie chuckles again. “Well I THOUGHT they would be in cages!”
The two banter and bicker like … well, like girls who have been best friends for 50 years.
They say they could never be roommates though. For one thing, they do not share preferences in TV programs.
“I like action!” Charlie says. “But Jenilee – she likes the old classics and soap operas. I know not to call her between 11 and 1.”
Jenilee gets back to telling me about their enduring friendship. “We both married young. I married at 15 at a church and Charlie married at 16 but eloped.
“Harry and I made it, too,” Charlie says, “til he passed away.”
Jenilee was married to her first husband for 29 years, 12 to her second husband, then she and the first husband got back together for another 14.
Another chapter in their story: they tend to save each other’s lives, and always with a tale to tell.
“Charlie had a heart attack and I drove her to the hospital,” starts Jenilee.
“Yeah,” Charlie interrupts, “and you were just at sitting at the four-way stop sign. I had to tell you, ‘It’s not a stoplight – you can GO!’”
Ahem. Another story.
“Remember when we stole that horse?” Jenilee asks.
“I didn’t steal a horse,” Charlie responds.
“Oh, well, we stole those drums …”
“I didn’t steal no drums either.”
Jenilee tries again. “Remember that game we were playing and that kid asked me what Cinderella lost at the ball? I said, ‘Her virginity?’”
“I think they were talking about the glass slipper,” Charlie says.
“Well I KNOW that, but that’s so BORING.”
She graduated WHEN?
Jenilee said she graduated about ’74. She is 78. In ’74, should would have been in her mid-30s. She says, “There were my kids, cheering me on.”
Sophie clarifies: “Jenilee was telling her kids how important it was to finish high school. They wondered why, if it was so important, she hadn’t finished high school herself. So, Jenilee made a commitment right then: she would get that high school diploma and walk across the stage to make her point.”
I like a woman of grit and determination.
Jenilee talks about having volunteered in hospice care, and knowing how to advise people who might be approaching need for that type of care. Though she shares about it in the same tone as the stealing of a horse and Charlie throwing her into a den of snakes, there is no doubt a gentleness in the way she counsels people in need. She once told a friend that his family would try to decide what was best and the doctors would try to decide what was best, “But it’s your life and you should decide what’s best.”
An hour had passed. We had hopscotched through a life, quickly perused the scrapbook of Jenilee’s memory bank. Sophie promises that next week she’ll bring a friend and they will all play Scrabble.
More bear hugs ensue. “I love you baby,” Jenilee says.
And so in this way, a 78-year-old and her best friend relive their glory days and their loves and losses, and a 19-year-old learns about history and geography and sociology and art in a way no classroom can offer.