When I was growing up in the 1940’s, my family lived in a very eclectic neighborhood. It seemed that every dad and/or mom pursued a different occupation. Every family had children and we all played together. At the time, I had no idea I would spend all my formative years in that neighborhood, not leaving it until I married. Our parents were either best friends or at the least fine neighbors. It was as if an unspoken code of ethics and conduct existed. Wives cleaned their own houses and husbands took care of their own yards. Summer brought the ice truck and the vegetable man. My own father drove an ice cream truck delivering gallons to the neighborhood. The rest of the year he worked in the Portland Public School’s administration.
Across the street lived an attorney and his family. Up the hill lived an active member of the NAACP. Whenever that family had lamb stew, I was invited to have dinner with them. Their daughter Elizabeth was one of my best friends. I would sit at their table marveling at the beautiful oil painting of a nude black woman that hung on the wall. We all had pets – theirs was a standard white poodle. We were served wine even as youngsters in dainty glasses. I found this to be an amazing experience. Much later in life, I would drive my friend’s mother to NAACP meetings.
I remember only a few times, when as a neighborhood, we experienced real tragedy. Our house was on a corner where four streets met. The second house across from us, facing the side street, was home to a family that was quiet and tended to wave hello’s although the children played with us.
One day the father drove to a road along the Columbia river and shot himself. We never knew why, but the shock resonated and baked goods prevailed. Our parents gently explained personal pain and suffering and we, who questioned as children do, understood. We realized that our best option was silence.
At this time in our lives, none of us could have asked for more involved parents. The grade school I walked to five days a week enrolled its first black student. She was my age and I immediately befriended her. She was friendly, but with a slight reticence. I felt protective of her, necessary or not. Eventually, I invited her to my home for dinner. Prior to this I sternly lectured my family on behavior. I was determined to oversee the evening. My father was quietly amused. It was a big success and my new friend was happily at ease.
We kept track of each other until high school when we went different directions.
Eventually, we lost a few families to necessary moves due to a change in jobs and such. For the most part our little world stayed intact. It would be years before another tragedy struck. I was a young woman, a college junior, home for Thanksgiving. I had a boyfriend and was having dinner at his house. My mom called and asked me to come home. A neighbor girl and friend who lived just down the hill had taken her own life. I arrived home in tears, enveloped immediately in my mother’s arms. I listened to what had transpired with intense disbelief. My dear friend had left a note despairing that she had “let her family down”. She paid the ultimate price in the garage with the motor running. My mom held me so tight I could barely breathe. Over and over again she said, “Promise me, promise me.” When I went back to college, I felt a little wiser in the ways of the world.
What good is life if we do not learn from it? We need only to listen. I strongly believe that great teachers are all around us. It may be the person standing next to you.