Lush emerald foliage pressing in from the lanai, light glinting off the golden lacquered wicker sofa and chairs, beige walls enclosing the space. Eyes closed, I can easily render this room in my mind, a place of warmth, laughter, and comfort — the living room set of The Golden Girls.
Though the show’s final curtain came two years before I was born, I have probably watched late night reruns since I was 12 or 13 years old. And although I cackle at Dorothy Zbornak’s wit, Betty White as Rose Nylund, with her endless repertoire of St. Olaf stories, simply ends me every episode.
Due to my parents’ early media influence, I have acquired what some today might qualify as a vintage taste in television and music. So when I stumbled upon Betty White in The Golden Girls, it was only a matter of time before Betty (is that too familiar? Nah.) became more than an elderly actress to me ― a role model, a national treasure. As I watched, I researched. I began to sneak into the TV room for clandestine late-night Golden Girls binges.
And so began, to borrow a phrase from author Victor Lodato, this “wildly chemical,” even if one-sided, friendship.
In multiple circles now, both religious and non, I have heard the whisper of culture’s coming buzzword ― intergenerational friendship. What?
By splicing together a couple definitions from the illustrious Dictionary.com we can define it as follows:
“A friendly relation or intimacy” between “individuals in different generations or age categories.”
Searching “intergenerational friendship,” Google pulls up articles from websites like The Huffington Post and Good Housekeeping. These articles provide anecdotal evidence of the power of diversifying the ages of your comrades. The authors also present tips for how to foster such friendships like “expand your network” and “cherish similarities (and differences)”. Articles written for media outlets with younger demographics speak to the need for younger to extend the hand of friendship to older. The trend is framed as a younger person’s responsibility to initiate these friendships. However, outlets like nextavenue.org, produced by PBS, asks older generations to take on some of the onus of expanding their networks. Reporter Gail Rosenblum asks older generations to break down traditional age barriers like kids tables at holiday celebrations.
At 95, Betty White has existed over four times as long as I have. Satirists and meme-makers alike have claimed sliced bread, first marketed in 1928, to be the best thing since Betty, born in 1922. Despite this chasm of time and space between us, I feel connected with this petite TV giant. We’re both very close with our parents, we share an odd, dry sense of humor and a drive to do what we love. Since it’s been in my power, I have celebrated Betty’s birthday with dessert and friends, but oddly, there hasn’t been nearly enough cheesecake at these celebrations. Some may call it obsession, but I call it appreciation. Without Betty one of the biggest decisions of my life so far would have been much murkier.
Four years ago I was trying to decide where to attend college. For various reasons, I had only applied to three universities, all in-state. Two were laudable, but less academically rigorous institutions. The other was UNC-Chapel Hill. After a stressful and sleepless high school career the idea of a university with a more relaxed culture sounded ideal. In spite of the ebullient, school-spirit cloaked campus tour I had taken a year earlier, I knew choosing UNC would mean more hard work, more competition and less sleep. It would take courage to walk away from being one of the best and step into a pool of the best. I didn’t know if I had such courage within me.
Throughout the decision process I considered a lot and scratched down many pro and con lists. Finally, though, when the time came to declare my intent, I remembered my dear friend Betty White. She is one wise workaholic. In one of her memoirs, Betty says she asks herself, “Who is my watchdog today?” As she has aged and lost people who have been honest and made her better, Betty is cognizant that her “ego is at the wheel.” As I thought about it, I realized that I had to attend UNC. I had to be where a new pack of watchdogs would keep me honest and make me better. In that pool, I would be submerged with the best and have the chance to emerge as one of them. I just knew it was what Betty would do.
Silvery, wispy hair frames peaches-and-cream skin, emoting a high-pitched cackle that quickly devolves to a barely audible wheeze. It’s Sharon in her native garb―one of her many participant T-shirts and Nikes because “you never know when you’re gonna need to [abruptly turns to the side] sprint away!”
Sharon’s work with youth began when she realized her dry, sarcastic humor didn’t mingle well with the tender skin of 8-year-olds. After much petition and “calling him everything but a child of God” on her solitary walks each day, our church’s youth minister relinquished and allowed her to start working with the middle and high schoolers of the church. Prepared with a psychology degree and a sharp wit, Sharon began to hang out with students and listen.
“I connected with the students that were different, that I could say to ‘You’re not like everyone else and that’s not a bad thing,’” Sharon said.
I was one of those students, a member of the “cinderella team” as she refers to us, the different students. Although I have known Sharon most of my life, our friendship did not begin to coalesce until the sixth grade. I was 11 and she was nearing her 50s. We met attending the same 100-year-old church in a 100-year-old town. If you have never been privy to community life in a small southern town, you need but one word to understand the culture: clique. Living and attending school in a different town, I existed outside of this church’s coterie. That is where Sharon found me, not loving local life the way everyone else seemed to. A nonnative herself, she understood me.
It started small, lunch on a day off from school or a quick text now and again. It burgeoned to lunch almost every Sunday and long, long chats with Diet Coke and Yoo-hoo Wednesday nights after youth group. Were we friends at this point? No, our relationship far more resembled a student-adult one, but it was the genesis of an incredibly important relationship to come. There would be late night chats and adventures of mundane proportions, dance parties in the parking lot of the closest Cracker Barrel, an hour away. We quietly slipped from discussing Latin quizzes and the buzz cut my heart was pining for to future plans, faith and genuine hardships we were facing.
Although Sharon has fostered many great relationships with younger people, she has not neglected the wisdom of older generations, checking in and grabbing meals with women of all generations each week.
“My mother was everything,” Sharon said, “I’ve seen some of these older ladies [in our church]…you see patience and tolerance, like her.”
It’s because of these relationships that Sharon feels it so important to have these relationships with younger people and display this same kind of patience and tolerance. Her commitment to sharing herself and having open, honest discussions with younger generations drives these friendships too. She doesn’t aim to hide her struggles or questions.
“If I’m not honest with y’all, then I’ve lost from the very beginning,” she said.
Now that I’m a few years out of high school, Sharon has said that we surpassed that “adult/student” barrier a long time ago. We are still the most ridiculous pair, turning heads with our equally thunderous laughter and age difference. Hanging out with younger people can allow a true sense of your age, sometimes widening the gap between. Because Sharon chooses not to dye her hair, she is often the butt of many “old person” jokes. I have asked her before if that ever bothers her or makes her regret hanging around younger people.
“No, old is how you feel.”
It’s a state of mind that also appears to keep Betty White vivacious. Like Sharon, Betty has a keen sense of humor, making irreverent jokes about herself and unflinchingly sharing her age with late night TV hosts. In her pastel track suits and matching sweater sets, Betty resembles everyone’s grandmother. Even so, it’s her quick, sometimes biting wit, which sustained her early in her TV career and originally connected me to this woman, just as it is with Sharon. Despite the difference and separation of our ages, appearances, experiences and circumstances, our connection, our friendship extends beyond the immediate distance.