My neighbor has a smile, a wave, and a warm greeting for me each time I see her. I would estimate that I probably see her once every couple of weeks; now that it’s getting warmer, I’m starting to see her more often; outside gardening or heading out of her driveway in her bright blue RAV4. She’s an older woman of my hue, probably in her early 70s, who lives with her husband in a multifamily house almost directly across from the brownstone that I live in.
I’m ashamed to say that even after living on this street for 10 years, I can’t recall her name. I also doubt she remembers mine, although I’m sure we’ve exchanged names a few times before. We probably just don’t interact enough for it to stick. What I have gathered from our series of brief conversations over the years is that she is a proud homeowner, and a remnant of the Great Migration; her parents were among the 6 million African Americans who migrated from the rural South to the North, Midwest, and Western areas of the US. I know that she is a dedicated wife, mother, and grandmother, and that she has owned her house for decades.
One afternoon a few months ago, I had just parked and was preparing to go in the house. We were still recovering from this most recent rough winter, and there was still a chill in the air, so I was eager to get inside. However, this same friendly neighbor happened to be outside and observed me coming out of my car; instead of offering just the usual formal greeting, she also gestured for me to come across to her side of the street and chat. I could have just returned the initial greeting, declined the invite, and proceeded on my premeditated trajectory directly into my house, but I pride myself in respecting my elders, even the ones I don’t know on a first-name basis. Perhaps that is residual of the southern code of respectability passed on to me by my mother (speak when spoken to, “yes ma’am, no ma’am”, etc.), who was also part of the Great Migration. Nevertheless, in an effort to maintain the general reputation of neighborliness, I walked over.
She asked how I was doing, and also asked specifically about my father. She knows him because in addition to being my dad, he’s also been my ever-present right-hand maintenance for my house. He planted the tulips and bushes that currently flourish in front of my house, and he checks on the house and feeds my pets when I’m out of town. Most of the long-time residents on the street are familiar with his presence, and sometimes ask about him when they see me. I told her that he despite the health challenges he had experienced late last year, he had recovered well and was looking forward to the upcoming fishing season. I asked about her husband, since I was accustomed to seeing him outside occasionally also, but had recently noticed that he hadn’t been coming outside as much. She explained that he was also experiencing health challenges, and his recovery was going much more slowly than both of them had expected. I told her that I was sorry and that I would pray for his speedy recovery.
We spoke a bit longer about life in general, the ups and downs, the unexpected challenges and the silver linings. We both acknowledged our mutual awareness of the evidence that our neighborhood was swiftly changing due to gentrification. As we wrapped up the convo, she gave me a serious look and pleaded with me to hold the line and not give in to the developers preying on our hard-earned slices of the American Dream-our homes; I assured her I had no intention of “selling out” anytime soon. “You know”, she said, “we go through so much as black women; so many obstacles to face, health, finances, but God is still good and we gon’ be alright.”
I didn’t realize until that moment how much I needed those words. I hear encouraging words from the expected sources often enough: family, friends, fellow church members, sometimes even from co-workers, but in a society where it has become an increasingly normal occurrence to not know or interact with your neighbors, the words of uplift from my neighbor were unexpected and appreciated. In her words, I heard the gratefulness of being able to still share the pride of ownership with people that look like her. I heard the hope that she for black people to remain invested, financially as well as emotionally, in the communities that they live in. Like it or not, I have a mantle to carry, and a legacy to continue.
Our interaction revealed to me an opportunity for a renaissance in neighborly behavior, to transcend the “hi” and “bye” routine. We can ask questions, interact on a deeper level, remember one another’s names, break bread and exchange knowledge and words of encouragement.
The most recent encounter we had was brief; one day this week I was walking to work and she was driving by, but she still took the time to slow her car down and check in on me. The next time I see her, which I’m sure will be soon, I’ll ask her name for the last time, because this time I will remember it.
She is a born explorer. She is a Boston native with Afro-Caribbean roots, who loves her city and cherishes her heritage. She is an avid reader of various genres, and wants to increase and refine her portfolio of written work.