When I was eight years old, my insulated little neighborhood school closed down and I had to walk a good part of a mile to a more modern school in the Projects. I had to cross one of my city's busiest streets to traverse a crime-filled neighborhood: although I hadn't discovered that human nature could be anything but kind back then. Usually, I'd see other girls that I knew, and I'd catch up to them and we'd walk together.
Along this route, at a major street corner, was a grey colonial house with a small yard and a picket fence. The back of the house was much steeper, and there were fire escape ladders and evidence that the property had been converted into multiple apartments. I wasn't really aware of how tattered the property was, and it never caught my attention until an elderly lady greeted us with a musical voice and a smile. "Look in my apple tree!" she said. "Do you see the Cedar Waxwings?" Well, I had never known what a Cedar Waxwing was until she showed me the birds in her yard. Every day, my friends and I would look for the old lady to see if she were gardening. She had taken this little yard and made it a small Paradise of flower beds: so established that she probably had lived there for many years. She was refined and sweet, told us all kinds of things about birds and nature, and we grew to adore her that year.
One day, we stopped seeing her. We'd look, and there was never a sign of her: her garden began to look unkempt and the greyness of the old colonial house seemed to take over the mood. One of us dared to open the gate and knock on the door, but the dear old woman would never greet us again. It was to be my first experience with death, although I didn't know it then, and a death to my childhood innocence.
Late that summer, a new family moved into the house. There were four children: the eldest was my age and the others except for the last were all one year consecutively younger. The first two had a different father than the last, and their names were curiously original and different than other children's. They asked me to play one afternoon, and we ran through the two storeys that they occupied, onto the peeling lead painted balcony, and down hallways and into strange rooms. They were ALONE, but at age eight I didn't think twice about it. I was more interested in the game and curiously looking around the delapidated interior of the house where my dear old lady friend had once lived: rather stunned by the shabbiness and loneliness it emitted. The sweet woman had never given an inkling of information about it. Instead, she had been loving, warm, and proud. These children lived lives exposed to things which I had never experienced: once showing me a Polaroid photo of their stepfather's privates which they said had been given to their mother, but that they had found while snooping. They devoured a box of sugar sweetened, artificially flavored, fruit cereal because, they said, they could get their vitamins that way.
My mother didn't have to tell me not to play with these kids any longer. We had nothing in common. Still, exposure to the other side of a busy street presented my neighborhood friends and I with many of the cruel realities of life, from which we had been spared until our school closed. Mothers had been supported in their convictions to keep us safely at home by the heavily trafficked road: we had known of a boy killed by a car, and that was enough. When our district decided not to bus us to the other school, we met the Foster girl who said she had been in many homes and one day ran away and never returned; the little girl whose mother sold homemade candy. When we learned that her daddy had committed suicide after a robbery, their home became a curiosity and we'd walk the small child to school. The obese woman screaming from a balcony to her kids in the street. Going to a house that was advertising 45 rpm records for sale and being offered drugs, dropping everything and running home to our families. We told our parents everything, and they didn't do a thing. I think they were afraid. Nobody got involved when there was a crime, not even if a rape were committed directly across from their house: "What's that sound? Someone's screaming!" "Turn off the light! Mind your own business! Lie low! Keep your voice down! We don't want to get involved!"
I wish I knew the name of the old lady who taught me about Cedar Waxwings. I'd tell her how the brief time when I had known her has greatly impacted my life. Every time I admire a bird, especially a Cedar Waxwing, I think of her. Every time I face a hardship, I remember her grace and dignity. She took an acidic, poor piece of city ground and filled it with blossoms. Her presence in the old house made it beautiful. She was beautiful. The dramas of the troubled people on the other side of the street have faded into a distant fog but she, to this day, makes me weep for her loss.