Life

“I’m Having Such a Good Time. Why Would I Want to Go to College?”

Meet Irene Thomas, 98, from Ashburn, Virginia.

Irene with her twin.
Irene (right) with her twin, Arlene.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo courtesy of Irene Thomas.

Having met so many 80-plus-year-olds in possession of a bottomless well of stories and life advice, we present the series “Interview With an Old Person”—which is, well, exactly what it sounds like. To nominate yourself or an elderly person in your life, email humaninterest@slate.com.

Rachelle Hampton: Whats your first memory?

Irene Thomas: I just remember my parents were so excited they had twins. I’m from Valley View, Pennsylvania—a very small town—and we were the only twins around there. In those days they didn’t have many. We were the belle of the ball. Everybody would take us out to lunch, and they would pretend we were theirs. In fact, we got so we thought, No, we can’t be walking up Main Street, we’ll have to walk up the alley. This was when we were probably around 5 or 6.

Oh, wow. So people would stop you because you were twins?

Yeah. My mother would always dress us alike, and we are definitely identical. She was even confused. In fact, I may be Arlene rather than Irene, I don’t know.

Two girls, Irene and Arlene, in matching dresses.
Irene and her twin, Arlene, as children.
Photo courtesy of Irene Thomas

What was it like growing up as a twin?

I tell you, it was absolutely wonderful—the socializing and the admiration that we got. And I really felt that we didn’t appreciate it.

In what ways didn’t you appreciate it?

When we were older and working in the Pocono Mountains, there was this one woman who said, “I really feel that you should get moved to a larger town.”

I said, “Oh, no. My mother will never allow it.” She was extremely protective. I mean, we couldn’t roller-skate because she thought we’d get hurt.

The woman said, “I‘ll talk to her.” She told our mom she would take very good care of us. My mom said yes, so she brought us to Washington, D.C., because there was a new Sears Roebuck store opening, and she was in charge of the cashier department.

So we’re now in Washington, D.C., working at Sears, and then it was the war, and I thought, “We need something different.” And, do you know, we just left? We just told her that we decided we want to work for the War Department. After her going through all that, we would just take off like that!

I worked at the munitions building, for this colonel. One day he said, “Irene Thomas, I really feel that you need to go to college.” See, I only went to secretarial school. And he said I could stay at his house, and they would take care of it, and he would pay for all of it.

But, you know me, I thought, “My Lord, I’m having such a good time. Why would I want to go to college?”

What did you do?

Irene holding a bouquet and standing beside her husband, both in wedding attire.
Irene on her wedding day.
Photo courtesy of Irene Thomas

I got married, and then I became a stay-at-home-mom. I have two girls. At the time, my husband had an office where he had people working for him. He’d have parties, and people did not want to know what kind of dishwater detergent I used, what kind of diapers my kids wear. I was a little bored, I guess.

So my daughter says, “Why don’t you go to work? I will get you a job at the University of Maryland.” She got me a job at the library. And I loved it, I really did.

Then, my daughter said, “OK, now you either learn how to drive or you’ll have to give up your job.” I didn’t want to give up the job. So Becky [my daughter] taught me how to drive. I was 49 when I first got my driver’s license.

How many times have you been in love?

My husband’s here—I can’t tell you. [laughs] It’s now our 70th anniversary. We met up in the Poconos. I used to do waitress work. And he was a waiter and very handsome and very caring. So we started dating, and we dated for many years because I wanted to be sure I was ready.

How did you know you were ready?

Well, he started looking around, and then I was worried I was going to lose him because he was the one I really wanted.

Who was the first person you voted for?

You know, I don’t remember. We didn’t have newspapers or TV or anything like that. Might have been Eisenhower. We lived a very naive life. I don’t know how we grew up the way we did. But I think there was somebody above looking out for us.

When my twin and I came to Washington, D.C., we would ride on the streetcars. This one time my twin got off, and this young man followed her. And she said, “Oh, you live here?” He says, “No! I’m coming with you.” She says, “Indeed you are not!” She had enough nerve to tell him to get lost.

Maybe it wasn’t that bad in those days. Because of growing up the way we did, we just thought everybody’s good. As far as dates, we loved to dance. And there were these two young men who’d take us to a dance hall. They would drive us there, and we would dance with people there, and they would wait, and then they’d drive us home. They never felt they had to kiss us or hug us or any of that.

What was your favorite age?

Oh, Lord. Well, not this one. Probably when I was finally independent and could drive to work. I really felt like big stuff. Feels terrific coming from a small town. My sister is still living, and she says whenever she goes home they don’t ask how she’s doing, they want to know: “How are the twins?”

Do you live with your twin now?

Yes, she lives in the apartment above me. She had a husband who was a little more jealous. My husband, he thought being a twin was great, which is good. But my twin’s husband was a little more jealous of our relationship. We’d go out to dinner with him. My twin and I would look at one another, and we would start giggling without knowing why, and he’d say, “What? What’s going on?”

He felt left out. Many times, we finish each other’s sentences. And just to show how identical, we lived in different areas, and we would send the same Mother’s Day card to my mother not even realizing it. It’s hard to believe the closeness—it really is.

What advice would you give your younger self?

What I regret more than anything is that I didn’t show my faith or my appreciation more. I took too many things for granted. I just felt that because we were treated so well, that’s what people do. And by the time I was old enough to know better, the people I wanted to thank had passed away.

Whats the best piece of advice you ever received?

My mother always said, “Just be nice to people. Smile, be friendly, and be nice to people. And I will tell you, you will make many new friends. And that’s when you will have your happiness.”

What was the happiest day of your life?

I think the happiest moments are when we have family get-togethers and we reminisce. We celebrated our 70th anniversary, and all the children were here. And it was just so much fun.

What would you say was your saddest day?

I don’t think there’d be anything real specific. I can’t think of anything, really. Give me another star.

That’s a good problem to have! What advice would you give me, so that I can live to 98?

Be sure and steer to people who make you happy, and then, have a lot of friends.