K and I visit four ladies in Harlem each month. Our mission is to make sure these women have their needs met and to help encourage them spiritually.
We usually go visit our ladies on a weeknight after I get off work. I take the express train to K’s house, which is near my old place, so I say hello to Trini and he always gives me a big hug and kiss. K kisses her husband and daughter goodbye and we go out into the night.
The first lady we visit is Maria. She lives with her brother in a small apartment in a building she helped build as part of Habitat for Humanity. Maria used to be a secretary for the police department but she retired soon after 9/11, when her asthma became too much of a burden. Now she mostly just stays at home and rests. She watches a lot of TV, does sudoku puzzles, and takes care of her college-student daughter’s rambunctious little dog. She hasn’t been to church in a long time, but K and I invite her to come. She said she’d like to, but isn’t sure about her asthma. A sufferer of childhood asthma myself, I advise her to take her newly prescribed Advair regularly. I want to tell her to get rid of the dog, because she’s probably allergic to it, but I don’t know how to say it. I know what it feels like to not be able to breathe, and I wish I could do something more helpful, but we have a nice chat, and I think Mary enjoys having the company.
Next we visit Eugenia, who lives near the church. Sometimes K and I stop by after church to see her. She is wheelchair-bound, and has not been to church in a while, but we always tell her we would be happy to come in the morning and help her get to church. Nevertheless, I can understand why she would not feel like going. It would be hard to live in a wheelchair, let alone in pain. K is a nurse, and always asks Eugenia a lot of questions about her medical history. When we first met her, we were shocked to discover how many grandchildren Eugenia has, because she looks so young. It’s hard for her to navigate around her home, because it is so full of things. Boxes and boxes of things fill up the rooms. One room is so full that nobody can enter it except a cat who moves through small tunnels between the boxes. Eugenia’s bedroom is full of stacks of clothing and collectible dolls, many of them life-sized and elaborately dressed. Eugenia’s kitchen is so full of appliances and boxes of things that there is no room on the table to eat or counter top space to cook. She has a deep fryer that she has never taken out of the box. An entire bookcase in her living room is covered with M’n’M brand figurines and knick-knacks (now I know who buys those things!) I think her children and grandchildren must give her these things because I don’t understand how else she could afford them, let alone go shopping. Tonight when we knock on the door, Eugenia’s daughter answers and tells us her mother is sleeping. We leave her a note, and chat for a few minutes with the daughter, who we haven’t met before. She has very long nails with a sparkly starburst pattern on each one—a wrap, she calls it. Put a piece of garlic in a bottle of clear nail polish, she tells us, and that will strengthen our fingernails. Or, soak them in milk. “Be safe out there,” she tells us as we say goodbye.
Walking around in Harlem after dark can sometimes be a little scary, but it’s usually not too bad, especially when you remember that even though the darkness makes it seem like its really late at night, its actually only 7:30 pm. And we aren’t alone because we have each other, and there are a lot of people out and about, even on the side streets. Anyway, if you walk with a purpose, nobody bothers you. We did get laughed at by some girls who were sitting on the stoop of a brownstone. For some reason they thought the way K answered her cell phone was funny and they mimicked her as we walked by. If anyone says anything to us, it is always to K, because she is tall and blonde. Brown-haired me, I tuck my chin down into the collar of my coat, and pass through the Harlem streets unnoticed when I am with her.
The phonecall was from Savannah, the next woman we are on our way to visit. Savannah isn’t her real name, although her first name really is the name of a city. And her last name is a woman’s first name, so K and I were very confused the first time we met her. Savannah must be used to that, and anyway, she has such a huge smile and happy personality that it doesn’t matter. She’s calling to see where we are--we must be late, but it’s okay. Savannah is packing for a trip to the Dominican Republic, where she is from. She and her daughters are going there for a month to visit relatives for the winter holidays. She is sending a barrel of food ahead—not because there is anything that you can’t get there, or even that food is cheaper here—but because she doesn’t want to be a strain on her relatives and eat all of their food. Also, she can buy food in the US with foodstamps and save her actual money to buy Christmas presents for her daughters while they are in the D.R. Actually, this year she is sending a barrel plus a huge box, because her daughters want to bring so many things and she doesn’t want to have to pack it all in their luggage. This will be her 8-year old daughter’s first trip to the D.R. The child watches us shyly as we sit with her mom, who is animatedly telling us stories of what happened when she gave birth 8 years ago. Her daughter was born exactly on her due date, the day before 9/11 happened. Savannah is a single mother, and is taking college classes to become a teacher. Her little girl runs into another room and comes back a few minutes later with a freshly drawn portrait of a fairy princess, which she presents to me. Savannah hasn’t been to church in a long time, but we invite her to come this week and she says she will bring her daughters. Her smile is infectious, and we hate to go, because talking with her is so joyful. But we pray with Savannah and then head back out into the night.
Our fourth visit is to the home of Sarah, who lives in a very nice apartment building, especially in comparison with the one’s we’ve just been in. Sarah’s husband is a prosperous lawyer, and the couple has just had their second child. Toys litter the room, which is decorated with the remnants of the couple’s world travels. Sarah’s family lived a Bohemian lifestyle when she was young, traveling from country to country simply for the fun of it. You might think she found her husband, of South American descent, on one of her travels, but he was born and raised in the US and the two met at BYU. Sarah and K talk about life as the parents of toddlers, and I have nothing to add to the conversation, although I listen intently. I am always fascinated at how parents are able to navigate the city with small children. Sarah is extremely capable--Amazonian, I would call her, actually. I admire her in so many ways.
It’s a good thing I have K, because otherwise I would never get out and visit anyone. She is the one that calls everyone and makes the appointments and has questions to ask. I am the one who watches, listens, supports, and remembers. And they tell me I smile a lot, but that’s just because I am always coming across such fascinating people with such interesting slices of life. Visiting teaching is meant to help the ladies who are visited, but I believe that I am always the one most enriched. As I walk or ride the bus home, I look out at the city around me and wonder at the lives of all the millions of people, and what lessons they have to teach me.