When we moved here in 1984, that period’s recession had dealt the neighborhood a gut punch. Houses were boarded up every other block and the house we bought had been one of them. We got it for a song. The area was shabby and predominantly black. Graffiti and shattered liquor bottles littered the alley. We loved our brick Queen Anne cottage, but weren’t sure buying it had been a brilliant idea. We were the only white people on the block and pretty uncomfortable.
Getting comfortable began with Ms. Evelyn Windom. It was April and I was in the backyard battling weeds. Yards were separated by chainlink fences then, so you could see into them. A clear, sweet voice called, “hello!” and I looked up to see a slender grey-haired woman two backyards away, wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat and garden gloves, waving her trowel. “I’ve been meaning to come welcome you to the neighborhood,” she smiled.
That moment shimmers in memory still. Everything had been looking ugly, she was a beautiful sight, and hers was the only neighborly gesture I’d received. Ms. Evelyn was my first friend on the block, steadfast to the end of her days. Weeks shy of seventy, she was two years into retirement, but hardly seemed retired. She came and went all week long, to lunch with friends, to Bible study, and on Sunday mornings I had the treat of watching her leave for church in her trim suits and snappy hats. She had a pale pink suit with simple A-line skirt that hit just at the knee, and I remember thinking, “damn, she still has really nice legs. I hope I’ll have such legs at that age.”
After years of front porch conversations, when I knew her better, I should have told Ms. Evelyn that story. She would have laughed and slapped her hand on her thigh. She would have loved it. After all, this was the woman who said, “makes me so mad, I could spit,” when she picked up fast food trash the high school kids dropped on her lawn. And then added, “you’ll have to excuse me now, I’m talking colored.” I told her a teacher I knew said she went to his church. She sniffed at his name and corrected, “He goes to my church, dear.” She’d taught Sunday school and managed the Altar Guild since 1942.
Ms. Evelyn Windom moved into her house in 1945, the year my husband was born, raised three children and buried her husband there. Her front yard had a parade of red and yellow tulips each spring, reliable as sunrise. She remembered the houses that stood across the street where Manual High School is now, remembered the big house to the north of us in “its glory days.” “A doctor lived there,” she told me. “They had peach trees.” Of the peach trees, one scraggly survivor remained when we came. Before it died, a seedling volunteer sprouted in my yard, a parting gift, so I now have one of those peach trees.
If Ms. Windom came to her door as I arrived from work, I knew she’d been watching for me and we needed to talk. Tactfully turning her back to the house in question, she leaned toward me and said in a low voice, “he moved out today.” “What!?” “I saw him throwing his clothes in the car.” Such business took time to sort out. We had to compare notes on all we’d heard. And of course, our opinions about the situation needed a generous airing.
For over a decade, Ms. Evelyn cared for her older sister with Alzheimer’s who lived across the alley. She walked over there several times a day, often with plates of food. Her brother or son mowed the lawn; other relatives pitched in. That family made it possible for the old woman to stay in her home long past when most would have resorted to a nursing facility.
Ms. Evelyn took in her troubled grandson from New York when she should have been enjoying retirement. Although he went to jail, struggled with addiction and caused her great worry, I never heard her say anything but, “my poor grandson: I’m praying for him.” He was a conflicted person, constantly trying and failing to change his life. He’d get a job and do well for months, then fall. He said, “Grannie’s the only one who never gives up on me.” I told him he was lucky to have her, couldn’t have done what she did, taking him back again and again, suffering his erratic behavior and unsavory friends. But Ms. Evelyn was a better Christian than most of us. Her grandson’s life ended too soon, tragically, and she was stricken by his passing.
One day I met her in the alley, both of us emptying trash, when she’d just come from a Bible Study group. “I’ve been thinking so much about Esther,” she ruminated. “What an amazing thing she did, putting her own life at risk to save her people.”
I only nodded, didn’t know about Esther, had to look it up. If I had known, I might have observed that Ms. Evelyn Windom’s service to people in her life had a lot in common with that story. She’d have told me that was some of my silly nonsense. I still miss her. It is April now again, the month I met her, the month she left us, and her red and yellow tulips again trumpet their bright glory in the front yard.