My grandma lived in an apartment complex for older folks and folks with disabilities during the last several years of her life, before her last stroke made it impossible for to take care of herself and she moved in with Aunt Shiela.
She lived there during the majority of my life, I’d say, and there grew to be quite the cast of characters for neighbors. She had the obese gay man next door on her right, who wasn’t elderly, but had a stroke prior to moving in. My grandma was nice to this man’s face, but was secretly terrified of him and his…gayness. I think she heard some things through the paper-thin apartment walls that she wasn’t quite comfortable with. To her left lived the most beautiful older lady I have ever met or seen in my life. Mariah was an aging hippy who walked around barefoot, kimono swaying–her piercing, ice-blue eyes held the wisdom, beauty, and struggle of her years.
A bit further down the way was a creepy older lady with ridiculously long and sharp fingernails. She always smoked long, slender cigarettes and asked me how my father was doing. When he’d come to pick me up to take me home, this lady would shamelessly flirt. Somehow, she got his phone number and called often. She became the butt of many jokes.
There was an aging Hispanic woman with whom my grandmother had an ongoing feud. She lived a few doors down. There was my uncle: a burnt out, schizophrenic, crude, smelly, violent son of a bitch who would get drunk and beat on my grandmother’s door (and sometimes my grandmother) at all hours of the night and day. One time I stayed over at her apartment, he came over around 6 am, already (or still, I guess) belligerent. My grandma tried to work her magic–the magic that most who deal with drunks with any regularity know–to subdue this frail, disgusting shell of a man. He got a little rough with her. I punched him in the face. I really haven’t spoken with him since and that was 8 or so years ago.
All of these neighbors–my grandma included–were on food stamps, disability, social security, deceased husbands’ pensions. They were poor. Barely scraping along. My grandma would always have me over during the beginning of the month so that I could get whatever food or treats I wanted with the bulk of her pension and food stamps. She would drop me off at Safeway and tell me to get whatever I wanted. So, I would always get bologna, bread, mayo, cheese, a ripe tomato, candy bars, and strawberry soda. She would peek in the bags I brought home, smile because she saw I got her favorites instead of mine, and she would lightly scold me before taking me back to Safeway to pick up something I liked.
Towards the end of the month, I rarely visited. It was during this time that my grandma and her neighbors would pool together their resources, stretch the last bit of money and food stamps, and cook enough food to feed the community one last meal before payday.
One particular month, I was there to witness this and it has forever left an impression on me. I remember being with my grandma, helping her cook the last scraps of the month. We had managed to get some meat to fry, potatoes to boil and mash, and enough flour and milk to make gravy. As my grandma plated the food and sent me out the door to deliver it, I began to get worried that there wouldn’t be enough for us to eat. Grandma insisted that everyone else was fed first. Plate after plate after plate passed from my hands to a grateful neighbor. I watched the food dwindle in our pots and pans–and I was getting hungry. I said: Grandma, what about us? What if there isn’t enough food left for us?
She stopped serving plates for a split second and looked at me, knowing.
There will be enough, she explained gently.
So, I tried to put it out of my mind. Tried to cheerfully give away all of our food. And you know what? Heaping plates (filled with scraps and food bank handouts!) feeding an entire neighborhood–my grandma never concerned that there wouldn’t be enough go to around. She never worried about our bellies, just kept sending food out the door.
And of course there was enough food for us. There was always enough.