Suffering families


August 4, 2000


            After six years living in the Applied Housing building in Hoboken, my mother has seen a lot of sad things, mumbling about some of them as I drive her to Jersey City each morning for her day care program.

            At times, she gets confused on the details, or perhaps only struggles to make herself clear, jumping from one idea to another because they have some internal connection for her someone like me can't see.

            During the ride yesterday, she lingered over two families she had seen suffering over the years, families she watched shatter before her eyes in her daily contact with them in the halls.

            She speaks fondly of both, of an English Irish family whose mother and daughter were both named Christine.

            "Christine's daughter used to sleep in the back near the fire escape," my mother said. "Her mother used to worry about her because she thought someone would come through the window."

            Christine, the mother, also had a son whose name my mother didn't know or remember, but whose IQ tests at school put him in the genius category.

            "Christine wanted to send the boy to a special school," my mother said. "But she couldn't afford it. She was very worried that the boy with get mixed up with one of the Latin gangs at the school."

            Christine apparently knew my mother well, and often caught my mother sitting on the front stoop of the building (something forbidden by management) saying the rosary.

            "She gave me some (audio) tapes about the rosary," my mother said.

            Christine's effort to improve her son's educational opportunity took a blow last year when her English husband left her and went back to England. With few resources locally, Christine moved the family out of town to some cheaper area.

            Perhaps more upsetting to my mother was the second family for whom she had no name, but knew they were of an Italian/Puedo Rican extraction. Two images stick out most for my mother. She remembers the mother always decorated the door to the apartment with tin foil and fallen leaves from local trees.

            "It was a simple thing," she said. "But it struck me as beautiful. That was before Applied Housing banned us from putting anything on the outside of our doors."

            The other prominent memory was of the oldest daughter, a teenage girl who apparently liked my mother and once, while my mother was seated on stoop, brought my mother a cracker with some cheese on it.

            "The woman had three kids," my mother said. "But I remember the teenage girl best. She was very pretty. The two younger kids were brats. I know the mother tried to make them behave, but they didn't."

            Then, my mother noticed the mother of these children looking ill.

            "She had turned yellow," my mother said. "Later I learned, after she died, that she suffered from AIDS."

            Apparently, while ill, the woman's mother took in the kids. But the grandmother was old and ill and died before her daughter did. The daughter's husband died. And when the woman died herself her two youngest went off with the state.

            "The teenage girl didn't wait, she just took off," my mother said, shaking her slowly as we weaved through the streets of Jersey City towards her day care program, around us, on the sidewalk, people going to and fro, each with a similar story, of which we had not yet heard.

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