When my mother couldn’t visit the world, she let the world come to her

When my father turned 65 in 1975 he went on Medicare and that gave him the courage to leave my mother who had taken care of him and supported him through years of mental illness and inability to work. We thought she would be happy to see him go, but she was frightened of being alone in the two-family house in the Allston section of Boston that had been in the family since 1941 when my grandfather purchased it for $6,000.

Not only would she be alone, but my father took his social security with him, leaving her less able to maintain the house. Her solution to both problems was to rent out rooms to students. The upstairs apartment had four bedrooms on two floors. She used only one. She posted notices at Boston University and Boston College. Both were within two miles of the house.

Thus started a whole new chapter of her life. For the next 25 years until her death she met and befriended young people from Arkansas, Africa, Iran, Korea and many others. Since she had agoraphobia and had not left a three-block area of Allston in thirty-some years, this was her way of traveling.

I remember a birthday party she threw for me which was interrupted by a kid from Morocco who had been her tenant when he was at BU. He had just gotten off the plane from Morocco with his fiancé and wanted to say hello. They were both invited to my party.

One of her early tenants was a kid from Arkansas who was attending Harvard Business School, also about two miles from the house. It was as if she had found a new boyfriend. We often teased her about falling for another Harvard guy (my father had gone to Harvard), but she didn’t care.

Jim charmed my mother, but he had more appropriate relationships in mind, and after a year he got married to a woman from home and moved into an apartment in the building next door. At the end of the second year he finished his degree (he showed my mother his yearbook picture) and went back to Arkansas with his wife.

Not long thereafter a neighbor who worked in the office at the Business School called in with a startling story. A request for a transcript for Jim had come into the Business School office from a prospective employer but they couldn’t find any record of him other than the yearbook picture. The neighbor knew him and had seen him in the office from time to time, so she believed he had attended, but in the end they gave up. He had faked the whole thing.

My mother, thinking back, figured out that he had been working at the airport handling baggage during those two years and understood why he never seemed to be overwhelmed by studying. He had even fooled his wife, who divorced him when it all came out.

One day she called me up and said that a young black woman attending BU had applied for a room, and she was thinking of turning her down for fear of what the neighbors would think.

I exploded. “What the hell have you been teaching kids in Sunday School all these years? It would be the height of hypocrisy to teach them not to be prejudiced and then to turn someone down because “the neighbors” might not like the color of her skin.”

I think she called me because she knew what I would say, and she backed right down. She told me later that when the woman called back, she was anticipating rejection. She said, “I suppose you’ve rented the room to someone else,” which made my mother sad. “No dear, I’ve been saving it for you.” This was my mother’s only female roomer and she loved having her around.

Most of my mother’s roomers were foreign males, who didn’t think it weird to live in a room in a house with a little old lady. She had three Iranian boys from the same family who were trying to avoid the war with Iraq (the U.S. was supporting Iraq). They did what they had to do to get green cards. One served in the US Navy.

Her best tenant turned out to be a kid from Ghana who had grown up in Italy because his father worked for the UN. We used to joke that the only person who spoke Italian in a house owned by an Italian was from Africa.

Charlie was studying software engineering at BU. He was smart, polite, warm and very knowledgeable about the world. I think he spoke four languages: two from Ghana, plus Italian and English. And he was very good to my mother in the last few years of her life. As her dementia increased, he watched over her, doing more than we would ever expect, and we were all very grateful. He became like a member of the family and has stayed in touch with us ever since.

Two stories:

Charlie’s parents repeated their wedding on their 50th anniversary and Charlie showed me the DVD. It showed a typical Anglican service, a decorated church, priest in robes, everyone dressed up, all the same as you would see in England or the US, except the color of their skin.

But there were cultural differences. I was listening to the priest conduct the service when suddenly I couldn’t understand him. I thought something had gone wrong with the recording but no, he had simply switched to Ga, the most common language in Accra, the capital of Ghana, Charlie told me. He switched back to English, then to Twi, the most popular language in Ghana. Everyone followed right along. Americans have trouble with one language.

Then, suddenly, everyone got up and walked around the church in a circle, singing. And the singing was not the drone you hear in a typical protestant church in the US. The whole thing appeared to be a lot more engaging than the type of service I was used to.

At some point in Charlie’s stay he was unable to meet the rent. My mother told him not to worry about it. She told me what she had done in case I had any objection, which I did not; and that was the end of it until years later when $4,000 appeared in my mother’s bank account. She was unable at this point to explain anything, so I told Dave, my brother who was handling her bills, to leave it alone in case it was some sort of bank error.

Some time later I told Charlie about it and he said the money had come from him in payment of the rent he had missed! I told him we never expected him to make that up, but he insisted on paying it.

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