When your grandmother dies, everyone knows what to do. Send a note, or at least express condolences. But when a neighbor in your apartment building dies, there isn’t really any protocol, maybe because there are so many different kinds of neighbors: The ones who live to clomp, the ones who put their garbage in the recycling, the “Hi, how are you?” buddies who chat for the length of an elevator ride.
But as I walk past the door of my neighbor who died on Wednesday, my heart does a weird little plop, and my eyes sting. She was 95, so you couldn’t call it an untimely death. But with her went a piece of joy wrapped in neighborly obligation.
Lolita Llora Walters was born to immigrants from Spain, in 1921. I can tell you her whole life story because every other day or so, I would try to stop by her home, in part for fun and in part because the thought of her sitting there watching television by herself made me queasy. Most of the times when I’d knock on the door I was greeted by a cheery but exasperated, “Where have you been?”
Into the armchair next to her’s I’d sink, in an apartment decorated in Old Lady Classic: China plates in the breakfront, a cuckoo clock on the wall. Figurines of birds, dogs, and saints sat on the shelves under seascapes and city scenes. These shared the wall with a few animal paintings by a family friend named Mr. Levine, long dead, who used to be an illustrator for the World Wildlife Fund. Many days Lolita would point to a Levine of meticulously rendered antelopes grazing against a stark white background and explain, “Mr. Levine did not like to paint sky.”
For my part, especially as Lolita grew more and more housebound, I’d try to give a taste of the outside world.
“Work was insane today,” I’d say. Or, “I’ve just been making soup,” and I’d give her a little overview of the shopping I’d done in the neighborhood. Then we’d share everything from gossip to history. Here’s a bit of the latter:
When Lolita was 7 — that’s 1928 — her older cousins were being taken by their parents to study at a convent in Quebec. Lolita joined them for the journey but when they got there, the cousins hated it. Not Lolita! She begged to stay. Although she was an only child and the cousins were heading home, her parents acquiesced. Thus was Lolita educated by French-speaking nuns until she was 17.
Summers and holidays she’d come back home to Queens, and so she remembers going to the movies with her parents. She saw the Shirley Temple musical “Bright Eyes” — featuring the song “On the Good Ship, Lollipop” — when it was a brand-new hit. She attended the opening of Radio City Music Hall. When my family watched old movies on Netflix, Lolita would sometimes join us, because for her, Charlie Chaplin wasn’t film history. He was the guy she grew up watching.
“They don’t make movies like that anymore,” she’d say, and she was right. Now the movies talk.
When Lolita graduated high school, she moved out to California and quickly got married. By age 20 she had her daughter, Linda — a little girl so pretty that Lolita’s friend told her, “You should put her in the movies.” That friend was Betty White.
Everything changed when Lolita’s husband, a pilot, died in a car crash when Lolita was about 22. She moved back to Queens to be near family and raised her daughter here.
I heard a lot about the daughter, including the fact, revealed to me very early on after we moved into the building in 2010, that she had died from rheumatoid arthritis about 20 years ago. That meant Lolita had no immediate family, which made being able to tell stories about Linda in her high-school years (bullied) or Linda at college (brilliant) or Linda’s nursing career (a true calling, she worked with kids with cancer) even more urgent. Other moms could talk about what their kids or grandkids were up to. Lolita didn’t have that luxury.
I couldn’t take the place of her beloved daughter. I wasn’t related. I wasn’t always around. I didn’t stay that long, most visits. But my mom is gone, and so was her child.
A neighbor dies and it’s not like losing a grandmother.
But sometimes … it sort of is.
Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker, and author and founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids.