A story of two people who like each other

She was 91, he was 18. But when Margaret and Elvis met, a true friendship was forged

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At first glance, Margaret Oliver and Elvis Checo appear to have almost nothing in common. She has lived a comfortable life and raised a loving family. He has endured lonely, hardscrabble years as an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. She loves opera and classical music. He likes to write rap songs - an enigma to her - and play video games.

Oh, and then there's the little matter of their ages: She's 73 years his senior.

But these differences fade when the two get together at the Jewish Home & Hospital for the Aged in New York. Three afternoons a week, Elvis comes to Room 470, the small, utilitarian space occupied by Mrs. Oliver. They talk, laugh, and share their philosophies of life. In the process, they also gently comfort one another. "We can tell each other anything," Elvis explains.

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This improbable friendship, chronicled in Sonny Kleinfield's moving "His Oldest Friend," begins when Elvis signs up for an intergenerational program operated by New York City's Department for the Aging. One of Oliver's daughters hires the 18-year-old to serve as a companion to her mother for $10 an hour.

Margaret is drawn by his enchanting smile. Elvis appreciates her listening ear.

He tells her about his early years in a three-room house with no bathroom, and of immigrating to New York at the age of 9. Much of his English came from Sesame Street. When he was 15, his mother returned to the Dominican Republic for two years, leaving him to fend for himself.

For her part, Margaret, a native of Augusta, Ga., tells him about her career as a dressmaker, her travels, her two husbands - long deceased - her twin daughters, and her grandchildren.

Grateful to feel needed, Elvis, a compact young man with a light stubble of beard and baggy pants, showers Margaret with small kindnesses: He adjusts her sweater around her shoulders. He cleans her glasses. He buys batteries for her remote control with his own money. He reads her mail to her.

Ever the maternal protector, Margaret dispenses advice: "Remember, Elvis, self-preservation is the first law of nature. You have to take care of yourself first."

However mismatched the two might seem, Kleinfield writes, "they had a rapport ... and a relationship that arose from the heart.... She made him feel older. He made her feel younger."

A story like this could easily turn cloying. But Kleinfield, a reporter for The New York Times who followed Margaret and Elvis for two years, generally avoids sentimentalizing their relationship as he unfolds the small dramas of their lives. He first wrote about them in an article in the Times in 2003.

Despite her situation, Margaret displays a remarkable contentment. Rolling around in a wheelchair, starved for conversation that doesn't exist among the residents, she refuses to feel sorry for herself. She doesn't hate old age, she tells Elvis. An optimist, she is "at peace with the past." She has "no regrets."

The story of this unusual friendship is more than a poignant tale. Woven into the rich tapestry of Margaret's and Elvis's lives are larger questions, including: How can nursing homes relieve their chronic understaffing? And what can be done to assuage the loneliness and monotony many older people face? As Kleinfield observes, Margaret "had time on her hands, improbable amounts of time. ....Sometimes it seemed as if there were 48 hours in the day."

At a time when media attention focuses largely on baby boomers and their energetic retirement plans, Kleinfield draws quiet attention to those in the oldest category. They remain invisible as the world hurries by outside the windows of places like the Jewish Home.

For young people like Elvis, trapped in bleak neighborhoods, the book raises another question: What can counter poverty and despair? Even with guidance and encouragement from Margaret, Elvis struggles to get an education and meet his obligations.

Still, the effects of their friendship have been profound. Margaret says Elvis has prolonged her life. He believes she has saved his by helping him clarify his purpose and avoid drugs. Who could hope for more from a friend of any age?

Kleinfield says it best. "Many intergenerational connections are fleeting, lacking density," he writes. "Once in a while, though, youth and age in juxtaposition build into something luminous and eternal. Something having to do with two people liking each other, no matter their ages."

Marilyn Gardner is a staff writer for the Monitor.

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