Ivy was a small woman with a big heart. She lived in a housing project in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, along with her 40+ year old son. Butchie had been injured at birth; when I knew him, his skull was still misshapen from what I assume was a botched use of forceps at delivery. Butchie couldn't walk, had limited physical abilities, spoke sparingly, and spent most of his time cheerfully watching his favorite TV shows.
Ivy also had a daughter. I never met Gwinette; she died of cancer at about age 40. I helped out at Gwinette's funeral, at which the pastor preached an amazing sermon about how when someone dies we feel as if we've been dismembered, and how Christ said, "Do this in remembrance of me" at the Last Supper, and hence in the eucharist we are re-membered in and through Him. We also sang "Jerusalem, My Happy Home", which is one of the songs I want sung at my own funeral. But I digress.
I was single and in my late 20's, working as an assistant VP at a money management firm when I met Ivy. She sat in the front right pew at church. Someone later told me that this was because when Ivy was a girl, St. Paul's was one of the few places where African Americans were allowed to sit up front. I don't know why Ivy took an interest in a yuppie white girl, but every Sunday she took the trouble to say hello and find something to talk to about. I enjoyed her no-nonsense style. It was refreshing, especially in light of my own self-centeredness.
Ivy was short and squat and she never complained about her life. She had things to be thankful for, things I had trouble fathoming, like that she'd never had to institutionalize Butchie, and that Gwinette had been able to have a decent career before she died. Ivy was also very proud of her home. One day Ivy mentioned in passing that her kitchen ceiling needed painting, and without thinking twice I offered to do it for her.
So one Saturday I climbed on a bus in downtown Brooklyn, and headed up to Bed-Stuy. Truth be told, I was kind of scared. I was going somewhere new, and that somewhere was smack in the heart of what was then one of the most scarred and drug-ridden neighborhoods in the city. I felt like I had a neon sign flashing over my head saying, "Victim here!" I sat on the bus feeling very white, so I thought about all the times when there had been only one African-American in one of my classes, and about Ivy riding the same bus every Sunday, and about how many other Ivy's were probably right around me whom I couldn't appreciate because I was scared. I tried very hard to look like I knew what I was doing and where I was going.
The bus let me off across the street from Ivy's building. It was the kind of high-rise project that makes the papers every now and then because of unworking elevators and robberies in hallways and gang activity. I had a hard time thinking of Ivy living there. Her apartment was on one of the upper floors. I was infinitely thankful the elevator was functioning.
But once the door shut on the gray, ill-lit hallway, I forgot my fears. Ivy lived here. This was Ivy's home, cozy and cluttered, safe and solid. There was plastic on the good sofa and there were hand-crocheted doilies on the end tables. Ivy introduced me to Butchie with pride, then sat down and showed me family pictures. Only after an hour of getting to know Ivy better was I allowed to paint the ceiling.
It didn't take long, maybe a couple of hours. You'd think I'd swum the Atlantic to bring Ivy diamonds, she was so happy with the results.
Then Ivy made me lunch and showed me more pictures, and told more stories. Whoever Mr. Ivy was, he'd skeddadled long ago, when the kids were little. There wasn't a drop of self-pity in Ivy's voice as she told me about it. She was matter-of-fact about Butchie, too, and about friends who had died or gone astray.
I learned that day that Ivy's family was originally from the West Indies. Her birthday was September 8. When she'd moved into the housing project when it opened, it was the most beautiful place in the world. I discovered that Ivy was a talented seamstress. (Years later, she adjusted my mother's wedding gown so I could wear it at my own wedding.)
I went home on the bus, no longer afraid of Bed-Stuy. Whatever else it had, it had Ivy. Ivy was a strong woman. She was not afraid of life. She was thankful for what there was to be thankful for, and accepting of what needed to be accepted. I heard myself think When I grow up, I want to be like her!