Searching for the white landlady who saved my immigrant family, I found America
Exhausted, my mother sat on the stoop of one of the four-story brick buildings that dotted our old neighborhood of Borough Park, Brooklyn. It was cold, but she was too tired to care. She had dropped my siblings and me off at school and, in the few hours that remained before our return, she had to weigh her options carefully.
Her circumstances were bleak – jobless and penniless with three children. And now she was homeless after being turned away by her community acquaintances who didn’t have the room, money or patience to put up with the charity case that our family had become.
“I sat there watching the other families walking down the street,” my mother recalled 33 years later, as we sat together drinking tea in the living room of my large Massachusetts colonial. “The young Hasidic mothers with their children and all of the kind, Hispanic women in the neighborhood would walk past me and go into their homes. And I realized that I didn’t have a home to bring my children to. We were going to have to go into a homeless shelter. It was the worst feeling as a mother.”
It was there on that stoop in 1984 that the elderly white lady with the raspy voice, who owned an apartment building a few doors down, found my mother. A friendly neighbor alerted her to my mother’s presence. In the hours before school let out, the stranger offered her spare bedroom, rent-free, to a homeless Pakistani woman and her three children. That offer was a turning point in our lives, saving us from homeless shelters and destitution. And it created a legend in our family about the woman who opened her home to us.
As decades passed, her name disappeared from our collective memories. We knew her simply as “the Landlady.” She had light hair and a round face split with wrinkles, but was otherwise featureless in my memory, a low rumbling voice that said little but was always kind. I remember the swish of housecoats as she walked by in slippers, and the distinct smell of beer mixed with tobacco.
At first, she was simply the main character of a story we told each other during tough periods to remind ourselves about the goodness of humanity. Over time, however, as xenophobia began to sweep the country and my children questioned their place in an increasingly polarized nation, the Landlady became a larger symbol for me of what it really means to be American.
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