Page One

A West Oakland Visit By Mertis L. Shekeloff

Friday December 30, 2005

“I talked to Elizabeth yesterday. Can you believe she’s 90-years-old? Anyway, she wants to see you,” Mother said on the phone. Miss Elizabeth had been our landlady when I was in junior high school. This was right up my alley—I’m always thrilled to take a walk down Memory Lane. 

I’m a little mushy about my past, Mother is not; she believes in letting the past take care of itself—she’s strictly a NOW person. I’m always trying to get her to take these sentimental journeys to West Oakland with me. Sometimes she agrees to come along, and sometimes she simply refuses. “I’m not interested in seeing those old houses!”  

“Let’s eat lunch at the Senior Center. It’s chicken day ... and we can go visit Miss Elizabeth afterwards,” I said, quickly before she had a chance to think about it. 

“OK, now don’t be late. You know they stop serving at one o’clock.” Mother still talks to me like I was a teenager. If, for example, I were to tell her that I was driving to San Francisco—she herself has refused to go by car or BART since the 1989 earthquake—she’d probably say: “Call me when you get there.” 

When I had a serious operation at San Francisco Hospital five years ago, she took me aside before the surgery and whispered: “Baby, I don’t think I’ll visit while you’re in the hospital. You know how I feel about crossing that bridge!” 

“Really, Mom,” I had said, unbelieving. Before the earthquake, her favorite pastime on Saturdays was taking BART to San Francisco to shop at Macy’s. The quake created a true lifestyle change for her. But the fact was she visited me many times at the hospital and at the rehab facility where I was sent to recuperate for a couple of weeks. She even moved into my house when I left the hospital to nurse me until I recovered. That’s Mom, always pulling through for me no matter what the cost. 

Miss Elizabeth still lived on 14th and Peralta, and it would be a treat to see the old house again. After lunch, I took the slow way to West Oakland and drove past places Mother and I both remembered. We had moved a lot when I was growing up—always into rooms in other people’s houses. 

“Mom, there’s the house you and Grandmother Emma were living in when I first came to California.” I said pointing to a vintage two-story house on my left. I had taken a taxi from the 16th Street Southern Pacific train station. Instead of going directly, the driver had meandered around nearby streets to make a larger fare. When the cab pulled up in front of 1412 14th Street, Mother and Grandmother had run out to greet me. 

“Of course, you didn’t know, baby, but you could have just walked here—the station’s only a couple of blocks away,” Mother said. 

“And the house next to ours belonged to the crazy woman ... you used to play with her children, remember?” 

“Yes. Mom, remember the Hiralez family? I used to help Marguerite Hiralez do housework in exchange for a bowl of that spicy stew her mother used to make.” 

“Uh-huh. Vera and her family lived in the house on the corner ... near Willow Street.” 

We both fell silent at the mention of Vera—my best friend until I left for college. She became Mother’s best friend in later years. She used to take two buses from her senior facility to come play bid whist with Mother almost every day until she went into hospice. 

“Lord, I sure miss Vera.” Mother said. 

“Me, too.” I added. Vera had died of lung cancer a couple of years before.  

I turned left on Campbell Street, drove three blocks and made a left on 11th to see the two story imitation red brick house Grandmother Emma and I had lived in when I was in high school and started junior college. I had left Mother’s when she went back to my stepfather after their brief separation. 

“It’s up to you. You have to choose between him and me. If you go back with him, I’m gonna live with Grandmother,” I had challenged. 

She chose to be with him. 

“Mom, look at Miss Sadie’s house! Isn’t it a shame?” I yelled, surprised to see that what was once, one of the best kept houses on the block, was now boarded up ... empty ... looking like it had suffered many decades of neglect. I could have wept. 

“Mom, look at those black bars! There weren’t any when Grandmother lived there.” 

It occurs to me that we never worried about robbers ... break-ins or leaving the front door unlocked. It seemed, I remember, we didn’t worry about personal safety ... the streets were safe. The house once belonged to Sadie and Jessie Rodgers, a couple my family knew back in Monroe, La. As a kid, it seemed that the whole of Monroe had moved to Oakland. We had the same friends here as there. I drove slowly by Sadie’s house, remembering that she never complained, as she had to the other roomers, about my using too much electricity. 

“Sadie wants you to study,” Grandmother Emma had explained when I asked about it.  

At Peralta Street, I made a left turn to 14th Street. Miss Elizabeth’s house had not kept up with the surge of remodeling now going on around it. Peralta Street, it seemed, was emerging from the drug induced slump it fell into in recent years. Two houses across the street were being handsomely remodeled. The one on the left of our old address was being renovated by a young white woman who smiled as we parked next door. There had been a white family living there when we first moved to Miss Elizabeth’s in the late ‘40s. I remember a pretty young girl around my age running up and down the long stairway, tossing her blonde hair, and never looking my way; nor did she ever speak to us—not once. Soon after we came, the family moved away, silently, in the night.  

There was a long stretch of stairs to climb to the front door. Mother reached it first and rang the doorbell. Miss Elizabeth opened the door in her wheelchair. She managed with the assistance of a younger 87-year-old sister, she told us later. Mother and I stood in the foyer; I gave Miss Elizabeth a big friendly smile while steadying myself with my cane. Miss Elizabeth’s smile froze as she looked me up and down. Hesitant. Puzzled. 

She looked good: unwrinkled and with a good skin tone. 

“You don’t look like the Louise I remember,” she said, trying to come to terms with the aging grey and crippled woman standing before her. Her eyes avoided mine throughout the visit. Mother ... embarrassed? ... attempted to explain my condition—why I didn’t look younger and prettier, something more like the pretty young teenager who had lived downstairs. I was beginning to feel a bit uncomfortable. 

“Well, you know,” Mother said, coming to my defense, “I was only 14 when I had Louise. So she’s in her 70s now. And she had an operation where she was cut from here to here,” she said, using her own neck to demonstrate the surgeon’s cut. To her, I was still that skinny young girl of 13 whom she had to protect ... letting no one get the best of me, if she could help it. She would do for me what she hadn’t been able to do for herself.  

Miss Elizabeth and Mother fell into easy conversation recalling the whereabouts of people who had lived downstairs with us, most of whom were now dead. 

“How long has Kenny been dead?” I interrupted. Kenny had been Miss Elizabeth’s husband; I had fond memories of him. A friendly white southerner, and a welder in a shipyard. When I came up from downstairs to talk with him, he was usually lying in bed, shirtless, reading the newspaper in the bedroom across from the kitchen. Miss Elizabeth did not talk much. She usually went about her chores while Kenny and I talked about school, what he was reading or anything else we happened to think of. 

He held the paper with both hands, and my eyes were sometimes riveted on his pink arms, where a mosaic of tiny red burn marks (stray sparks from his welding machine) had amassed for my wonderment. His gold rimmed glasses rested on a crimson, pear shaped nose. Everyone agreed that what Kenny lacked in looks was more than compensated for by his ability to provide. 

Miss Elizabeth twisted her mind and face in a struggle to remember the date of Kenny’s demise; at last she gave up trying: “I can’t remember,” she said, defeated in the effort. 

“You know Kenny always said that of all the children downstairs, Louise was the only one who would make something of herself—the others wouldn’t be shit—EVEN IF HER MOTHER WAS ALWAYS RUNNING THE STREETS.” Mother recalled. “Well, I told him that it was none of his business.” Miss Elizabeth nodded in agreement.  

“Miss Elizabeth—mind if I look out the back door to see the garden?” I asked. 

“Help yourself,” she said.  

Getting to the back door was not as easy as I supposed. Long ago washed towels and linens was strewn everywhere, hanging limply on collapsible wooden dryers, piled high on stored extra chairs ... Outside, two steps down was a sitting porch ... a deck of sorts... with a couple of mismatched over stuffed chairs for sunning. The houses next door and in front had the same decks. So close, they almost touched. No garden as such, only a few patches of unmowed grass ... essentially a dog run for the barking and mean-looking pit bull who had seen me and was now coming up the back stairs, towards me. I wasn’t sure if he could get past the makeshift barrier constructed to keep him from Miss Elizabeth’s section ... if it would be sufficient. I bolted back inside the house. 

Mother was ready to go home; she needed to take her breathing treatment, she said. We hugged Miss Elizabeth and said good-bye, promising to visit again ... soon. 

In the car on our way back to Berkeley, I remembered a question a friend had asked me the day before. I popped the hypothetical question to Mother: “Mom,” I said, “what would you have advised me to do if I had been chased home from school by a bully?”  

“I guess I would have told you to go to the principal and report it,” she said. “I remember Mary Williams beating ME up every day and taking my lunch money when I was a young girl. When I told Grandma Millie about it, she went to the yard and found a stick for me to take to school the next day. ‘I want you to hide this in the grass somewhere along the way home,’ she said, and then she went in the kitchen and filled a small cotton tobacco pouch with salt and pepper. ‘I want you to pin this to your dress, and if Mary follows you and tries to take your money, just lead her to the place where you hid the stick. Throw the salt and pepper in her face, get the stick and beat the hell out of her!’ I did exactly like she said, and you know what?” 

“What?” I asked. 

“Me and Mary became the best of friends after that!”  

“What if I HAD told the principal, but nothing happened and the person still bullied me?” I said, getting back to the point. 

“Then I’d go take care of it myself!” Mother said, defiantly.  

“I know why you advised me to go to the principal and not fight as Mama Millie told YOU to do.” 

“Well, sometimes there’s a better way to handle things.” 

“You didn’t tell me to fight because you didn’t think I would win, huh?” I continued, with the gusto of a 13-year-old who had caught on to adult tricks.  

“Yeah, you're right,” Mother admitted.