As a college freshman on my first day of work at the university library, I walked straight past the security guard posted inside, forgetting to show my student ID. Without skipping a beat, the guard yelled, "I know you're new here, but you better get some sense about you." That was the first time I met Effie Willis.
I met Effie almost 10 years ago. I was 17, and she was in her mid-fifties with absolutely no interest in being friends with a teenager.At the time, I lived at home and commuted to class every day, which made it difficult to make meaningful friends on campus. I hoped my new job at the library would make it easier to meet people. The loneliness was slowly starting to weigh on me.
The next day at work — and for the next few weeks — I flashed my ID at the library entrance and tried to avoid making eye contact with her. Eventually, I was assigned to the circulation desk, which placed me right next to her post. I tried to introduce myself, weakly trying to confront the awkwardness, but she quickly let me know that she didn’t “fraternize with students.” She needed to stay vigilant for any book thieves.
I made it almost halfway through my freshman year without making many friends. One morning, while I was getting coffee at the cafeteria and looking for friendly faces, I saw Effie sitting at a table alone, reading the newspaper and eating oatmeal. I walked toward her and asked if I could sit with her. “Only if you’re not embarrassed to be seen with an old lady,” she said. We had breakfast together five days a week every week for the next four years.
On paper, Effie and I should have nothing in common. There is a generation between us and stark lived experiences that shape our view of the world. I was (and in a way, still am) an unbearably shy millennial Latina from New York City who has always dreamt of being a writer. Effie grew up in the segregated South during the 1950s and has always been a bit of a rebel. During one of our daily breakfast dates, she told me how she was the first person to sport an afro and wear a mini muumuu dress in her hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina during the ‘60s.
It’s almost been a decade since I first met Effie — she still teases me about not being able to find friends my own age.
Yet, we soon discovered that we shared a love of books and movies. The first book she lent me from her personal library – something she said she’d never done – was Sula, by Toni Morrison. The captivating novel deals with what it means to be a Black woman in America and the power of female friendship, themes I was learning about in my daily talks with Effie.
Effie was the first person I shared my writing with. I would give her short stories about my childhood and essays about my neighborhood to read. And although she never missed an opportunity to scribble snarky comments on the margins, she took me aside one day and told me I had a story to tell, but I needed to have the courage to tell it. Without Effie, I would have never learned what it really means to be brave — especially when those dreams seem so unattainable.
Effie is a constant cheerleader in my life. I called her when I decided to go out on a limb and apply for a job as a magazine writer, and she celebrated with me over dinner when I accepted the position. She was there when I was accepted to study at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism this year.
But last spring, Effie seemed distant. The daily texts and phone calls started becoming less frequent. I later found out she was dealing with deeply personal family issues. She had stopped going out during the week and opted to stay in bed most weekends. It was my turn to be her cheerleader. I forced her out of bed one weekend and took her to dinner and a movie. I wish I could say I’ve always been a dependable person, armed with a perfect plan to lift someone’s spirits. But it was Effie’s steadfast friendship over the years that taught me what it really means to show up for a friend in need.
It’s almost been a decade since I first met Effie — she still teases me about not being able to find friends my own age. Early on in our friendship, she told me she loved being a mother of boys, but had always wanted a daughter to share advice (and more importantly, books) with. But she had long ago accepted that it was not meant to be. About a month ago, when I visited her at her Yonkers neighborhood, we stopped by her favorite bagel shop for coffee.
As we walked in, she greeted the owner and before I could introduce myself, Effie stopped me, saying “Oh, this is my daughter. The coffee is on her today.”
Bustle's "Without This Woman" is a series of essays honoring the women who change — and challenge — us every day.