Home was a basement and a city’s sun

Mrs. B loved her sun – we’d squint and find somewhere else to go as the hot western sunset aimed down the narrow alley into our eyes. She’d come out from her basement kitchen to absorb its beam, silhouetting a cross on the concrete wall behind her. Depending on what she was wearing, it occasionally looked like her shadow followed her with angel wings of its own.

My front steps in those days before window air conditioners. Mrs. B’s were down an alley to the left.

Inside, a framed calendar page showed a thatched cottage and colorful garden from a place she called home. But when we asked, “Isn’t this your home, here?” She smiled, hugged us and said, “Of course it is. I picked this place just so I could be with each one of you.

We had no idea what she was talking about – and really didn’t care. She was our friend’s mom, the building super’s nice wife, the lady with the funny accent that didn’t quite fit in to the neighborhood mix of Irish and American English. And those words that didn’t mean the same to her: A jumper was what we did from the tall wall to the sidewalk, not what we wore. Our families told us she was a war bride, whatever that meant. To us, it meant that she grew up far away and that Mr. B brought her home from the army, like our dads brought home green coats and blankets.

I guess today we’d call it a daylight basement, with the inside windowsills at the alley’s outside ground level. My memory of those sills is red geraniums. Dead ones in her hair and live ones always stinking up the air around the summertime dirt or wintertime flowerpots.

When I was three years old, I played on this fire escape. I’m still alive.

We could run in and out of her apartment like it was our own, always [well, nearly always] remembering that we should never, ever go into the big boiler room where Mr. B kept his tools and spent his days emptying the trash chute when he wasn’t fixing the lights, toilets, windows and everything else in the old five-story apartment building I shared with my grandparents and all the other tenants. She kept the secrets of our distant three- and four-block explorations and shoplifted candy bars – but also threatened to tell our families if we got too far out of line. Every now and then we’d lose a comic book we’d lifted – and discover it back in its original place in the store a few days later. She was our friend, a music-humming ambassador from the world of adults.

Was she Wendy to us lost boys and girls? Or just a wonderful woman who shared discovering the wonders of her new world along with the rest of us? I’ll never know. But it was nice having a fellow traveler in those years.

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