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what i learned from my 89-year-old friend

Culture

My world, my words

My World, My Words is a series of first-person essays featuring totally unique, inspiring experiences unlike anything you've heard before. The most interesting stories are also often the most overlooked, so we're on a mission to find them and share them with you. Written by people from all walks of life, these essays will move you in ways you might not expect—and that's the point.

I told my mom I didn’t want any kids on my 23rd birthday. I figured it was the one day she couldn’t get mad at me. She stood there as I, her only child, told her I wouldn’t be continuing our family’s Spanish heritage. She hugged me and asked me if I was sure. I nodded and that was that. Despite her approval, this realization still made me feel unfit for the world–like wearing shorts to a fancy dinner, awkward and out of place.

It’s what I wanted, though. I knew it in my heart. Why couldn’t I deal with the views of others and my decision? I told my friends and as expected, I was the only one that felt uncomfortable. They were nothing but supportive though, already assigning me the role of cool aunt to their future offspring. 

Since then, it’s still tough to talk about. It’s like being a teenager and feeling self-conscious about your body. When you say, “I don’t want kids,” people look at you in a certain way. You think, oh my god, maybe I shouldn’t have said that. Maybe I should have just smiled and nodded

For some people having kids is their calling, and I respect that. It’s not that I dislike kids, I just never felt like I wanted them in my life. As women, we’ve fought for the choice to have kids (or not) on our own terms. We shouldn’t be judged for what we do with that choice, but we are.

At 25, I got a job at a Baptist church in the South. Talk about feeling out of place. Despite this, I found comfort in finally having stable work that was close to home and with enough income to pay down my debt. 

I met Ruth one Thursday afternoon as she took her post at the front desk. Ruth was 86 years old at the time and the sassiest of the Sunday School bunch. She instantly took me under her wing and protected me from the mean old ladies that left the halls stinking of strong perfume. 

Early in 2014, I started working on a personal challenge to deal with anxiety. My anxiety was reaching upsetting levels and I figured baking would help deal with it. I told Ruth about it and we bonded over pie crusts, using vodka as an ingredient and opening windows to the summer air. She taught me to be patient with my pies and gave me tricks to make them even more delicious. One day she told me, “Always keep vodka in the house, Muriel. For pies and for life.” 

Over the next year, I learned that Ruth never married or had children. She always talked to me about my past conquests and how I should always have a Plan B, but she never spoke about her own life. 

One day, I mentioned my insecurities about not wanting kids. On that sunny afternoon, as we assembled church programs for the Sunday worship, she quickly reassured me that there was nothing wrong with me. Despite coming from a conservative family and being conservative herself, she never saw herself having a child. All of the men she met and loved wanted to have them, but she put herself first and didn’t comprise her gut instincts for marriage. During the time, it was unusual for a woman to make that decision, but she said she never regretted it. She looked at me with her kind eyes and said, “When you know, you know.”

That day Ruth was wearing a purple sequin jacket laid over a black outfit, always making a statement despite being a soft-spoken lady of the South. I asked her about having it all and what it meant to her, but she quickly dismissed the concept as archaic. She reassured me that we all have different paths in life since we’re obviously all different people. She wasn’t sure why all of the sudden we are being packaged as robots with no dreams.

We spoke about these issues every afternoon she worked at the front desk, and despite her conservative leanings, we found something to bond over (aside from pie, of course). I would’ve never expected to find my confidence in my 89-year-old co-worker. But I’m more comfortable being myself because of Ruth and I’ll never forget that. 

She considers herself "one of the luckiest kids on the face of the earth"

Dani Okon, NYLON's associate creative director of video, sat down with her great-aunt, May Okon, to talk about their shared experiences—despite vastly different time frames—living as queer women in New York City. Prior to retirement, May was a journalist for the New York Daily News, having first entered the male-dominated workforce when "the boys were all at war." And, of course, she absolutely killed it. Her only regret? "Retiring at 55," she tells Dani, joking, "Who the hell knew I was gonna live to 100?"

Upon retiring, she moved out to the Hamptons with her partner and bought a home. If she had to do it all over, May says "there are a lot of things I wouldn't do," but she still considers herself "one of the luckiest kids on the face of the earth." Get to know May in the video, above.

Check out the other videos in our series where we placed queer people from different generations in conversation with one another:

Rob Smith and Eddie Jarrel Jones
Lauren Morelli and Garcia
Marlene Colburn and Naima Green
Ashlee Marie Preston and Devan Diaz

Produced by: Alexandra Hsie
Camera: Gretta Wilson + Katie Sadler
Edited by: Madeline Stedman

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FROM THE WORLD WIDE WEB

Here's how they're making sure it doesn't happen

Lauren Morelli, the showrunner and executive producer for the new Netflix show Tales of the City, is fostering a space where multiple queer realities can be shown on-screen. She spoke with one of the cast members, trans actor Garcia (who plays Jake Rodriguez on the show), and, in the video above, they explore why it's wrong to treat queer stories as representative of the entire community. Tokenization is something that they both want to avoid at all costs, and they're on the right track.

Check out the other videos in our series where we placed queer people from different generations in conversation with one another:

Dani and May Okon
Rob Smith and Eddie Jarrel Jones
Naima Green and Marlene Colburn
Ashlee Marie Preston and Devan Diaz

Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Directed by Charlotte Prager
Shot by Gretta Wilson + Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson

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"Nothing is truly a binary"

We put non-binary activist Eddie Jarrel Jones and The Phluid Project founder Rob Smith in conversation with each other, and the two spoke some powerful truths about the continued gendering of products like makeup and clothing. Smith recalls that 30 years ago, the only way that he was able to experience the joys of playing with makeup was to work at a beauty counter. Even today, Jones notes that it's hard for non-binary femmes like them, or even trans women, to get that experience in stores.

In the video above, get a sense of why Smith created a genderless store, and see how important it is for people like Jones to have a space where they don't feel criticized for dressing like they want.

Check out the other videos in our series where we placed queer people from different generations in conversation with one another:

Dani and May Okon
Lauren Morelli and Garcia
Naima Green and Marlene Colburn
Ashlee Marie Preston and Devan Diaz

Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Directed by Charlotte Prager
Shot by Charlotte Prager + Dani Okon
Edited by Gretta Wilson

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We put the two activists in conversation

Marlene Colburn, one of the founders of the Dyke March, and Naima Green, an artist currently working on a project and archive called Pur·suit, which will document queer people of all identities, agree that it's really hard to find lesbian spaces that aren't bars. Just as hard, it seems, is to find lesbian representation that isn't white. In the video above, the two talk about how they are creating space for queer people and what that looks like within two different generations.

Check out the other videos in our series where we placed queer people from different generations in conversation with one another:

Dani and May Okon
Rob Smith and Eddie Jarrel Jones
Lauren Morelli and Garcia
Ashlee Marie Preston and Devan Diaz

Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Directed by Charlotte Prager
Shot by Dani Okon + Charlotte Prager
Edited by Charlotte Prager

Illustrated by Sarah Lutkenhaus

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Travel can be tough. Sure, there are definitely the exciting aspects to it, especially when it means we're going on vacation, but if it involves traveling to different time zones, then we have to deal with jet lag, which is... not fun at all.

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