Character: Build It Here
When I was in art school, living in a fourplex in Oakland, California, Dorothy lived in the house next door with her husband, Al and their grown son, Victor - a nice Italian family. If it weren't for Dorothy, I wouldn’t know much about what it takes to be a good neighbor. On hungry evenings when I would be working non-stop on a pottery project, Dorothy would come walking down the driveway to my back door with a big pot of spaghetti, a crisp romaine salad and a bottle of wine tucked under her arm, usually a good chianti. She'd say, "Here's dinner for you and your roommates. You’ve got to eat something to feed your brain."
Dorothy defined good neighborliness. She didn’t have to reach out to us. We were just a group of crazy art students who happened to live next door. She shared her family and her love of great food. We shared our front-yard vegetable garden and our love of art with her. We each brought something to the table, so to speak, a cultural feast.
Toward the end of my first semester, Dorothy came over one day carrying a covered pan and the usual bottle of wine tucked under her arm. She also had two mini-wine glasses dangling between her fingers. "I brought you a little something to help you get through finals, " she said with her reliable smile, "tiramisu and port wine." I had never heard of either. Sharing those newfound culinary treats with Dorothy that day did indeed get me through finals - and it wasn’t so much about the food as it was Dorothy’s caring spirit.
If it weren’t for Dorothy, I wouldn’t know much about what it takes to be a mother. I became pregnant when I was nineteen, in art school, and thankfully, still living next door to Dorothy. When she first heard about me being pregnant, she showed up at my back door one afternoon with the familiar pot of spaghetti and a bottle of port wine. In the kitchen, Dorothy opened the bottle, poured two glasses and handed me one, “Here. This will build your blood.” She had heard that I had passed out the day before at the grocery store. (As a point of historical reference, this was 1970, before much was known about the risks of drinking alcohol during pregnancy, however, Dorothy never advocated over-indulging, and besides, I followed the tenet of moderation in all things, even at that rather young age. I think I owe my innate horse sense to my Midwestern values.)
A few weeks later, my mother showed up by surprise at my front door one afternoon. I had written a letter to my family to let them know about my pregnancy and my hopes of building a life with the baby’s father, an African-American art student. My family sent my mother from Ohio to California to pack my bags, take me home and put the baby up for adoption - that’s how my mother put it, quite to the point, as I opened the door that afternoon and she stepped in my apartment with her finger in my face.
Dorothy must have seen my mother get out of the cab. She showed up at my front door and came right in to confront my mother. I don’t remember all that was said, other than the salient remarks that Dorothy made regarding my condition and that it was something to be celebrated - new life, new motherhood, and all the associated joys. Dorothy told my mother that she should give me all the love that the baby deserved and welcome this new life into the world. Well, my mother wasn’t buying it. She stormed out the door, back into the waiting cab, and that was that. I received a letter a few days afterward, informing me that I had been disowned by the family and written out of the will.
I never told Dorothy about all that. I was just grateful to have her next door for the next few weeks, until the day came that my mother sent two thugs from Boston to kidnap me and force the adoption. Thankfully, I was able to escape, and move in with friends in Berkeley.
I didn’t get to see much of Dorothy after that, but will always be grateful to her for showing me how to be a neighbor, a woman, and a mother.