When I moved into the Rondo neighborhood, I ground-truthed, i.e., I walked the streets to learn the lay of the land. On one of these walks a woman, Ms. Ellis, was often on her front porch, and I’d say hello, and we’d whine about the weather.
After a while I asked if I might come up on her porch and sit with her. “I don’t think you realize the magnitude of the impact you can have on someone’s life,” Derek Jeter once said. Ms. Ellis impacted mine.
I moved into the Rondo neighborhood on a Thursday, and on Monday there was a man standing in my living room. Next day, when I looked outside my dining room window, a man in a car was lighting a glass pipe. I called 911.
“Can you get a license plate number?” the operator asked.
“No! I’m hiding under the dining room table!”
When I told another neighbor this, he said, “Don’t mess with these people.”
My kids chastised me for moving into a neighborhood that put me at risk. A neighbor told me, “That may be your house, but this is not your street.”
Another neighbor told me she resented gentrification on this street. She wanted young Black families to be able to move in. As a city gentrifies, “there are fewer communities where low-income families can find decent, affordable housing.” Urban renewal has been overdubbed “negro removal.” [Source: S.Venkatash]
So my visits with Ms. Ellis were an antidote, my first foray into the good neighbor people of Rondo. The 14th Dalai Lama said, “Kindness is my true religion.” Kindness was there with Ms. Ellis.
I made a point of always walking her particular block to the Rondo Library, looking for her, stopping to talk with her. “Listening is not a reaction,” Ursula LeGuin wrote, “it is a connection.”
We talked about, well, everything. At times, Ms. Ellis surprised me, telling me private things as if she trusted me. “Everybody wants to be respected enough to be trusted,” Ralph Wiley [1952-2004] wrote. “Black people have to love you before they trust you, and even then it’s iffy.”
I was delighted when Ms. Ellis agreed to let me profile her for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder’s Black History Month. “One of the nice things about being a writer,” Thomas Hauser wrote, “is getting to know the people you write about.”
When the Chatsworth pedestrian bridge was torn down, I detoured and so I didn’t see Ms. Ellis for a while. Occasionally I would ring her bell, but no one answered. I assumed she was with family.
The last time I saw her on her front porch, she was visiting with her granddaughter. This was important to her. I did not stop. The last time I rang her bell, a neighbor told me, “Get out of here!”
“I’m only looking for Ms. Ellis.”
“She’s not there.”
I called her sister, who told me, “She’s in assisted living for memory loss.”
I went to visit her. She seemed lucid to me. Tired? Yes. She recognized me. In the past when we visited, she would say, “Ac-c-c-h!” when she couldn’t remember something. But we all do that sometimes.
I thought nothing of it. I didn’t believe it would come to be the harbinger of today. Like any fool, I thought she would always be there. Once she even told me that she planned to live long since her mother was still alive at 90-something.
The next time I called her sister, she told me things had gotten worse. I relayed this news to a mutual acquaintance who spoke of their good times, using a pet name for her I’d never heard.
In Bengali, a pet name, “Daknam,” is used as privilege, and by permission, only to close friends, family, intimates, “at home and in other private unguarded moments…a persistent remnant of childhood…and reminder that one is not all things to all people,” Jhumpa Lahiri wrote in The Namesake.
Arna Bontemps [1902-73] wrote, “I got the impression that to be loved intensely one needed a nickname.”
“I hate funerals,’ Marilyn Monroe [1926-1962] told Truman Capote. “I’m glad I won’t have to go to my own.” When Monroe died, a reporter asked her estranged husband playwright Arthur Miller [1915-2005] if he would attend her funeral.
“She won’t be there.”
On his deathbed, Monroe’s former husband and professional baseball player Joe DiMaggio [1914-1999] said, “Now I get to see Marilyn again.”
Ms. Ellis seemed ashen. She couldn’t be roused. I let her be. It was me who needed to say goodbye. I remembered her saying her deceased husband’s name was Jackie, so I said, “Jack, will you please tell whoever’s in charge up there to take her? Please? She’s tired.”
I guess he heard. I guess he listened. She’s gone.
Elizabeth Ellis is the mother of three grown children, a college graduate, a 10-year veteran of the Foreign Service and a native of the Twin Cities. She welcomes reader responses to [email protected].