Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.
-Saint Francis de Sales
Several harrowing stories have been told about public housing, especially in New York. Originally created for families who couldn’t afford to pay rent to private landlords back in the 1930s, this housing option opened new possibilities to families. In the 1940s legislation was passed to provide this housing to returning World War II veterans. Strict rules were imposed on the residents including eviction for unwed mothers and property damage fines. The Equal Opportunity in Housing Act was passed in 1962, making public housing available to minority residents.
In our seven buildings each with 13 floors (the 13th floor button actually had the number 13 and not 14 as was the custom with some superstitious builders) was always full of fun and adventure. I don’t recall ever feeling afraid or in danger (except the night that flying mantis flew in our window, but that’s another story). We also knew that if anyone in your apartment was convicted of a crime, that was grounds for eviction. The grounds people always maintained the landscaping, creating a floral arrangement in the shape of a horseshoe in the open grounds on the premises.
The residents in our building knew each other. We formed a close knit community and watched out for each other. We borrowed eggs, cups of sugar and checked to see if you needed anything if we were headed to the grocery store. We even had a floor decorating contest. It was a fun environment to grow and thrive. The thing I remember the most is that during the summer, we would share the blessing of breeze.
Our buildings were built in the 1950’s before air conditioning was standard. We lived on the top floor so we were the beneficiaries of the breeze coming off of the Harlem River. Our apartment faced west so we enjoyed beautiful sunsets over New Jersey. When the fans and cold cloths were not enough to cool us off, we would prop our front doors open. It worked best if one or two neighbors propped their doors open at the same time. The hallway carrying these breezes was a wonderful place to play. We would have tea parties and picnics with our dolls on a blanket in-between the apartments.
At the end of the hall was a wonderful family that even to this day, we consider family. They lived right next door to us for over 25 years. This was such a blessing because my mom was a young working mom and our neighbor was available to babysit during the day. She would later have two sons, but for now two little girls were keeping her attention. To this day, this is the only adult I called by just her first name while growing up. I think this was because I was too little to understand that it is rude to not add a respectful title before speaking to adults who are old enough to be your parents. As I got older, I would always introduce her as my aunt.
This beautiful southern lady had a round face and warm eyes. Her smile would brighten your day and she was fastidious about her home. No matter when you stopped by, everything was in its proper place. She was a full time home maker who had completed beauty school, so she knew how to do hair and makeup. She told me that for the first two years of her marriage, her husband never saw her without makeup. She would wear it to bed, wait for her husband to fall asleep, wake up and wash her face, then get up before he got up and put fresh makeup on. She was very pretty without the makeup, but as a young wife she wanted to always look her best.
Besides our mom, my aunt was our first beautician. Preparing for special occasions like Easter meant getting a fancy hairdo. Our auntie would press and curl our hair. This involved heating a metal comb on the stove and running it through your hair. You had to be skilled to know exactly how to do this. I love that she would gently blow as the comb went through your hair, providing just a little breeze to clear the smoke the heat created. That little breeze contained a lot of love. The thing that I think this generation is missing is time alone with someone you love, doing your hair. This was one of the many things I enjoyed about spending time with her. She was very encouraging and supportive.
She was also a wonderful cook and just loving. As a stay at home mom, she shopped, cooked the meals and even made her family’s plates. I never understood why my auntie would make everyone’s plate. I thought surely they are able to make their own plates. Of course it would be rude to insert myself into her process, but as I started raising my own sons, I came to understand that this was her way of managing her meals. She was very careful with money and if she cooked a whole chicken, she expected that meal to last 2 days. Bread and butter were always included to help fill in any emptiness after the meal. That was a great lesson for me.
My auntie left her way too soon. There is so much I wish she had the opportunity to see, but I have the wonderful assurance that the lessons she inadvertently taught me, helped shape my motherly instincts.