When I was young, I lived in a big house on a busy street that never stopped moving, was always noisy in a harsh way and I would lie awake at night in my second story room facing that street and wish for more peaceful surroundings some day. There were two great pines out front and I could see the tips of them from the double windows along side my cold metal framed bed, I often would look beyond them and see what wasn't there but in my young heart- I would visualize a fantasy forest with as many trees as there were stars overhead. A place that had little air traffic from noisy planes, no tires squealing on a bustling road- no lost children yearning for any kind of attention- the kind of children that would lure animals out into the street just to see if they were agile enough to dodge traffic. It was an unkind place and I longed to live somewhere else.
Our neighbors next door were of Polish and German heritage. They had two sons- both born in America, one in the service during the Viet Nam war and one who was very troubled and acted out. Jenny was the mom and she spoke little English, she was a cold and unfriendly woman. I often heard her sweeping, a broom in her hands consistently. She reminds me now of the nurse in Young Frankenstein- I believe Cloris Leachman played the part. My brothers and I avoided Jenny as best we could, there seemed to be no love in her heart whatsoever and certainly we needed that- so from her, we hid. I recalled yesterday- while working in the wreath factory, Jenny. I think somewhere in the back of my mind- I was still hiding from her but in an atmosphere of feeling suspect to my co-workers, I conjured her back up- now a safe distance away. There was Jenny, sweeping, cooking, keeping clean in what must of seemed to her in America- a hostile place.
One day, she came to our back door with a letter in her hand. I remember she knocked and the boys ran while I was left to answer her call. I did not want to, but I'm pretty sure it must have been obvious that I was at the sink doing dishes, possibly she could see my silhouette or had seen it first from her driveway and then peered through the screen in the back door and knew where to find me. Running would have been dishonest, I may have been young- but I was a girl scout in the making and I knew better by then, to be true- even to my scary neighbor.
"You read" she said. Not a question- a command.
"The letter? You want me to read your letter?" I'm pretty sure I was barely whispering and gasping for a little bit of breath as I pantomimed as best I could- the act of reading.
"You read to me, you."
And that was that. I followed her back to her house to a kitchen I had never been invited to before. I remember how good it smelled, how clean it was- I felt kind of dirty just standing there, but also a bit important. Why me? Why now? I was only eleven but I think she must have seen me outside often with a book anywhere I might lay my lanky Olive Oyl frame- I loved to read anything I could get my hands on, reading transported me away from North Grand Avenue.
The letter came from Jimmy who may have been the only bright spot that Jenny knew. Even at eleven, I could sense this. I remember the airmail red white and blue ribbon like border on the envelope. For whatever reason, Jenny did not want to share this letter with her husband or other son. This was her secret treasure and she need an interpreter that she would have to trust. Me.
Since she could not understand a level of English greater than basic commands, I had to act out the letter. I needed some way to make her understand what Jimmy was writing about. It was a very strange ordeal that I found a bit uncomfortable but also I felt like I was performing some service that only I could. I remember looking around the room for props, picking something up that might resemble a feeling or word to Jenny. It was certainly slow going at first but eventually everything became clearer and I could make Jenny understand most of what the letter said.
And it was only yesterday, in what seemed like such a foreign and far off land- that I remembered all of this. I have struggled greatly with finding my footing here in my new home. I have been here for one year and home is not really the word I would give this place. The road leading to my door doesn't feel like "coming home". The grocery store, the gas station even the post office is so unfamiliar still that I wonder if I'll ever take hold. But these are just places, it's the post mistress that makes me feel a bit less foreign. It's the station attendant who remembers me and always says- "Have a good evening deah." And it's the gals there at the wreath place that smile at me, sometimes and barely it seems to my fearful heart- that help me lighten up a bit. I think that's why I thought of Jenny. It wasn't enough to know that Jimmy thought of her, it wasn't near enough to just carry those love letters around- she really had to trust another to communicate the contents.
I read more letters for Jenny, I can't recall how many- and it remained a secret then and up until now. Some time in that window back to then- she showed me a few of her things, once she even took me into her bedroom to share with me pictures of her family and a jewelry box. There was mostly silence between us besides the vocal reading of the letters- we communicated more with our eyes than anything, and in hers during the show and tell- I really saw her, how scared she was- how little she had in this world when it came to relationships, friendship. I wonder now if I was her only friend. She never really said so or even touched me ever- but I did feel special, even from a cold fish like her- because I knew in possibly all the world and certainly on that block- I was the one soul she could trust. I think when someone puts their trust in you, especially when they come from a most vulnerable, terrifying place- it is something of a blessing.
I heard her sweeping the driveway one day, nothing particularly special about that as she did it at least once a day-but it had become a sound of reassurance and I found myself looking forward to it. The next sounds I heard haunted me for quite some time- I heard her gasp, the sweeping stop and then I heard her body and broom drop. I could not go to her, I was only by then twelve- but as I looked out the window I could see her laying there, cold and alone. Her eyes were open, but not to me or anything any more. I called to the next door neighbor, an ambulance came and that is all I ever knew, ever more- about Jenny.
Now in my grown up head- I wished I could have gone out to her, sat with her- maybe hoped her soul up and away. She lived alone surrounded by family. She died in the same way- I am sorry now that I did not know better, could not reach out to her as I certainly would have if she had allowed it. But that's just the thing- it has taken me these many years to see clearly the story there, it's meaning to me now. Jenny graced me with her tiniest trust. It's all she had, all she could let go of in order to survive but I think when she did do that, maybe just maybe- it warmed her up a bit. Maybe she didn't die alone, I wonder if the little seed I planted in her made it's way with her to where she is now. I certainly hope so.
I'll walk in Jenny's shoes then, here. That's the seed she planted in me and it has only just begun slowly to grow.