I did not know who I would be able to interview for this assignment as I did not personally know anyone who had immigrated to Los Angeles. So, I started to ask around and my uncle (who works at the Bradbury Elderly Center) mentioned an old lady who gave him a hard time every time he delivered to her room. He told me that her name was Sophia and that she had been with the Center for the last ten years, her family having all died years ago. Often, the high schools went to visit the elderly there, taking cookies at holidays and reading the paper to them on a weekly basis.
It was with some trepidation that I pulled into the parking lot of the Center. I did not know this woman personally, and haven’t had much association with my own grandparents so interacting with the elderly, especially a woman who was spunky enough to give my uncle a hard time, made me nervous. But, as my uncle said, Sophia had a great story to tell. Indeed, how was I to know what a story it would be? But, I can say now that my time with Sophia was, perhaps, one of the most inspiring (though that word hardly does it justice) experiences of my life.
As part of ensuring her character survives through this interview, I kept her swearing intact. This was a part of her character that cannot be removed. Sophia was a spit fire, a hard woman, and this was another element to her nature. Also, a great deal of this interview was spent in uneasy silence—with me scared of her or not understanding what she meant. I added my mental thoughts in italics within the interview to reflect this. Throughout the interview, I used a tape recorder and took occasional notes.
Sophia was fine with this, her only request was that we didn’t look at each other during the interview. I thought this odd since she was such a fire cracker with her humor and rampant swearing, until one of the nurses informed me of her condition. She had a tumor growing in her cheek and it made people uncomfortable to look at—she was just thinking of me. I also learned later that she never felt any pain, but refused treatment as she wanted to live out the rest of her days in freedom.
Even though she was in an elderly care center, to her, the hospital was a bit too much like prison for her. The doctors didn’t know how much time she had left, but the nurses told me I could come in and interview her anytime—because they wanted her to never feel alone, and she loved visitors, despite her condition. Background Information: Sophia is 82 years old. She immigrated with her family from a country called Suriname when she was 17, nearly seventy years ago.
I had to inquire about the location of Suriname, to which she made fun of me mercilessly, before informing me that the country is in Northern South America, near Brazil. I also learned, almost immediately, and because of the hijab (I had to inquire about her clothes, to which she informed me that all women wear the hijab, only she doesn’t wear the veil indoors) that Sophia was Muslim. Sophia remembers well her time in Suriname, as the country was often undergoing a war and she was never allowed outside because of her father’s laborers who he did not trust around his daughters.
Her family was fairly wealthy, wealthy enough to have two servants, that she called slaves, and a governess to take care of the seven children, and Sophia and her governess would often sit at the window and day dream about what life in a free country would be like. As Sophia grew into her teens, her governess discovered that she had a knack for cooking and taught Sophia everything that she knew. When Sophia came to America, the first thing she did was to get a job as a hostess at a restaurant and, within two years, had worked her way up to head chef.
If it was one thing that Sophia knew—it was food, and I could see immediately why my uncle would have recommended her. Interview 1: Analysis: I walked into a semi-lit room full of religious paintings, sculptures, and strange Jewish-looking items I had never seen before. The nurse was right behind me, calling out to Sophia. I saw her over in the far corner of the room, her back turned to us. I could see that she nodded to the nurse’s call, but she did not turn around. I was introduced to Sophia and moved forward to shake her hand, but she wouldn’t turn around and look at me.
The nurse whispered not to ask her to, and to just speak to her like a normal conversation. I nodded, unsure why Sophia would refuse to look at someone, especially, if as my uncle had said, she liked getting visitors. But I let the nurse introduce us and my reason for visiting Sophia, and after a bit of small talk we started our first interview. Me: I do have some questions for you—but I don’t need to ask them now. I’m looking to get your story. Sophia: Ha! Oh, dear. I hope you have a long time, dear one (laughs)
Me: (laughing) I do actually! Sophia: Well Hell. (coughs) Sorry I swear sometimes. Shit. See? Ha! (laughs) Me: (laughing again, though I’m now uneasy) It’s okay, I want you to feel comfortable. Sophia: This would be easier if you told me what you want to know. Please. Analysis: Immediately the laughter was gone from her voice. It was at this moment that I realized how direct Sophia was. Without being able to look at her, I could still sense her hawk-like gaze. This woman did not brook insolence or wastefulness.
Even though she liked visitors, or so my uncle and the nurses told me, the hard edge to her voice told me that she didn’t want me to waste her time with storytelling. Me: (I actually gulped here). Sure. (rifling through my notes). Can you tell me why your family immigrated to Los Angeles? Sophia: God almighty! That is a fucking story! (laughs) Me: Ummm, are you Muslim? Analysis: I had to ask. She was wearing unusual clothing and I saw religious paraphernalia on her walls. If I had to guess, Jewish or Muslim. But the woman was swearing like a sailor, so I was thrown.
And she had a hard edge to her voice that made me uncomfortable enough to ask. Sophia. (quiet for a while). Me: (almost ready to walk out—or apologize) Sophia: (coughs). Fine, yes. I’m a fucking Muslim. Me: I’m sorry I asked. Sophia: Not many do, you know. Me: I’m sorry, again. I didn’t mean to be blunt— Sophia: It’s fine! Let’s move on shall we? Analysis: There was a tension between us now. I felt as though I had ruined things with her and that the rest of the hour and the additional interviews would be the most uncomfortable of my life. But, that too, was part of Sophia’s nature.
As I was to learn, she made people uncomfortable on purpose—I don’t think she ever really took offence to anything. And, I think she swore for the same reasons. While I could see by her garments and the religious items in her room that she must be devout, she seemed to separate herself from her religion when with people—to get a rise out of them, I am sure. Me: (fumbling again) Sure, okay. Can I ask where you used to live before your family came to Los Angeles? Sophia: Suriname. Analysis: I had a long pause here, not sure she had spoken English to me.
It is, of course, my ignorance in countries, but I did not know that Suriname was one. Sophia: What’s your problem with Suriname? Me: (I felt panic welling up inside me) Ummm. Sophia: God! Christ almighty! That’s funny. (laughs) You don’t know where Suriname is, do you? (laughs hard for a time) Me: No, I’m sorry. Sophia: If you apologize to me one more fucking time, I’ll kill you, okay? And I’m not joking—I’ll stop your fucking heart, okay? Don’t apologize for ignorance. Me: (the words ‘I’m sorry’ ready to come out again—she scared me a little) Okay.
Sophia: Okay then. (quiet a while) Suriname is near Brazil, in Northern South America. Do you know where that is? Me: (sighing in relief) Yes. Sophia: Not so dumb, then? Ha! (laughing hard) Me: (laughing) No, guess not. But ummmm, can you tell me a bit about it? Sophia: (quiet again) No. Me: Okay. Sophia: You know what? You aren’t going to get far in life if you stop at no. Me: I’m— Sophia: (cutting me off) Stop! Stop! Stop! You say ‘I’m sorry’ again and it’ll be your ass! Analysis: Wow was Sophia hard on me. I was near tears at this point because, really she was