I once believed that the motion of leaves on the trees caused the wind. Sitting on our front porch that late-1950s summer, in one of those slippery turquoise metal chairs with the cut-out patterns on back, I looked at the sycamores lining our street and thought it made perfect sense: the leaves' graceful fanning and swaying seemed to push and swirl the air into windy gusts, the way my grandmother and her lady friends did with folded papers on muggy afternoons. Little in my six or seven years led me to look beyond the trees, just as I looked no farther than to myself for the center of all that was significant in my life. I soon realized I was wrong about the wind, but it would be a while before I saw that those who come before us are the source and inspiration of so many of the things that define us.
Our neighborhood was one of those Brooklyn post-war mixes—Irish, Italian and Jewish, in about equal parts. With neat semi-detached houses on one side, and neat attached houses on the other, our extra-long block was home to nearly one hundred youngsters. When summer came, the sounds of children playing filled the street until dark, since few went to day camp, and fewer to sleep-away camp. But our summers were rich times, as thick with discovery as with humidity, in part because of those adults who invited us into their lives in ways that now might well raise eyebrows. Two of those people stand out for me—Mandy and Blanche.
Mandy was one of three sisters from Ireland who lived in the house that shared our driveway. Our scraps of backyard blended together, so I often saw Mandy when I played out back. Tiny and frail looking at first glance, Mandy was, in reality, tough and wiry. She stayed home and tended the house while her much younger sisters went out to work each day. Mandy, with her plain, almost drab clothing, thinning gray-white hair and seersucker-wrinkly skin, taught me to appreciate the natural world around me, or what little bit of it survived the city concrete. Each day, she placed three saucers—water, milk and table scraps—beneath the single tree in her yard. They were for her much-loved cat, an outdoor cat at her sisters' insistence. I loved to pet him and change his water while Mandy talked about how sad it made her that he couldn't come in, and how worried she was, not only about him but about her "boids."
She fed those birds in front of the house so the cat, sleeping up on the windowsill in the garage, could not see even when he opened one squinty, suspicious eye to check for disloyalty at the far end of the driveway. Mandy let me help scatter the seeds and rice, and then we watched the sparrows crowding around. After the flock calmed a bit, she held out some feed and let the birds perch on her palm to eat. Her somewhat shabby clothes, the daily household chores she did for her sisters, and the fact that she always seemed to be sweeping made me think of Mandy as an oddly wizened Cinderella, but the birds eating from her hand completed the Disney picture. Fearful at first, I would run up the stairs of my front porch to watch from there. Mandy was patient, and it took most of a summer, but she taught me to let the birds land in my hand, too. "You'll be doin' it when I'm pushin' up daisies," she said, and she was right. But I doubt I enjoy the colorful flocks at my edge-of-the-woods feeder today any more than she enjoyed that motley assortment of streetwise brown sparrows.
Across the road, a few houses down, Blanche lived alone. Unlike Mandy, she rarely came out to the sidewalk. On nice days, she set up a folding chair on her front porch, a full flight of brick steps up from street level, and sat watching the neighborhood action. Sometimes, she asked a child to run an errand for her. Even the youngest could be trusted to bring home aspirin or postage stamps from the corner drugstore, or a hand-packed quart of coffee ice cream from the candy store across the street. Occasionally, she invited children into her house to talk and share a root beer, letting them return the empties and keep the pennies.
Blanche taught me about a country called Poland and about a lot of sad things that had happened there. You had to look back, she said; you had to remember the children—we owed them that. She told us about the tattoo on her arm, but would never let us see it. She wanted us to know that people once did such things to each other, but was wise enough to stop short of making it too real. Or maybe she hid it from pure personal pain—I don't know.
From Blanche, I learned that your family can be torn apart and you can forever lose track of people you love, but that miracles can happen and you can end up safe, if not wholly sound, in a new life in a new country. Blanche's buzz saw of a voice could stop kids in their tracks when she called no matter what game they were playing. Yet her soul was gentle and her harsh message came through with tenderness. She was making sure the next generation knew. "You kids, you have to get along better than the grownups," she often said, and she was right. "We should have known better. Maybe you will."
When I was in college, railing against the Vietnam War, painting signs for Earth Day, and arguing for causes like international understanding, I thought these ideas were mine. I thought the furor of my generation was a wind generated by our own thoughts and new notions. Later, I saw that our leaves had been rustling in the wind of our elders' ideas. For me, some of those ideas came from two special women generous enough to have shared their world with me when I was so young that my leaves—like the soft, delicate, pale-green leaves of spring—didn't even make a whisper.
BIO: Lydia Fazio Theys is an astronomer by training, a technical writer by necessity and a creative writer by night. Born in Brooklyn NY, she now lives in Connecticut with her husband and their two children. Two cats, a neurotic Italian Greyhound, and whatever else wanders in through the cat door round out the mix. Her work has appeared in previous editions of Moondance, Yankee Pot Roast, Gator Springs Gazette and Quintessence.
Contact Lydia at: email@example.com.