Saturday, September 11, 2010
For my dear friend, Regina...on her birthday.
The following is an except from Guardian Neighbor, by Lynda Barry
While Mrs. Yvonne Taylor's life isn't an exact parralel, if you know Regina, if she's touched your life, or those of your children, you'll understand.
"... I grew up on the last street before a garbage ravine where people from other places drove up to dump old refrigerators and mattresses and bodies of dogs and other trash. My parents needed a place quick and a real-estate man directed us to a run-down house with broken windows in a yard full of sticker bushes.
You can bet that, like most kids in disintegrating situations, we needed a guardian angel. She came knocking on our back door the next morning, Mrs. Yvonne Taylor with a welcome cake in her hands and her sons, J.J. and Sammy, peeking at us from behind her legs. She had dark hair in a bun and pointed glasses and she was married to a Negro man. A white woman married to a Negro man! With two kids to prove they really meant business!
I knew right away there was something different about her. It was a look she had when you talked to her that we had hardly ever seen on an adult. she looked like she was actually paying attention. I soon followed the lead of other kids who had a ritual for visiting Mrs. Taylor. First you stole flowers from someone's yard. Then you hid them behind your back, walked into Mrs. Taylor's and stood around like you weren't doing anything big. When you whipped out the flowers, she acted like she had never seen anything so beautiful in all her life. Even if you were handing her yanked-up plants with dirt clods hanging off them, she still said, "Well, God bless you!" And then she put her arms around you and held you tight.
Most of the kids on my street saw things like this on TV or read about it at school, but for the most part it seemed like a lost practice from an ancient tribe. Almost all of us had parents who were deep in various sorts of trouble and they could not remember how to do this anymore. Mrs. Taylor was about the only remaining evidence of purely affectionate contact for no good reason between adult and child, and I have no doubt that a lot of credit for the sanity of the kids who grew up in my neighborhood is due to her.
One day I asked Mrs. Taylor if I could go with her to her church. Morning Star Congregational was a Baptist church in an old store. I couldn't believe it was even a church because of the hanging light bulbs and beat-up chairs and actual Scotch tape on the picture of Jesus. Also, people were talking pretty loud and laughing.
Then the service began. The choir I had felt sorry for because it had only nine people and their robes didn't match started singing and moving sideways back and forth. Then a regular-looking teenager with a blue plastic headband stepped forward and the whole congregation started shouting, "Yes! Tell us about it!" She looked so normal and this voice as good as a record was coming out of her mouth. She started going faster and faster until she jumped and pure music shot out of her mouth like a light, like wild electricity jumping free of the wires and shooting into people who leapt up shouting, "Thank you! Thank you! Yes!" And tears were coming down their faces and suddenly it got me! Lifting and holding and shaking me in the most powerful, beautiful, terrifying way I didn't know what happened but for years after that I could not sing or listen to live singing without crying, even if it was "Farmer in the Dell." No music ever sounded the same after that because I could always feel it like it was touching me.
We invented a game called "Church" in Mrs. Taylor's front room. We dragged out her huge Bible and took turns playing the preacher, the lead singer and the lady whose wig was on crooked by the end of the song. And the greatest part was Mrs. Taylor leaning out of the kitchen to tell us that our sins had been washed off us and they were laying all over the rug so would one of us please vacuum.
I loved going to her house SO much that one day I sneaked over at dawn. I stood on her porch knocking and knocking and knocking, weighing how much of a bother I was becoming against how badly I needed to go see her. finally the door opened. Mr. Taylor in his bathrobe looked down at me and said, "Now, girl, what are you doing here?
"Who is it, John?" Mrs. Taylor stepped out from behind him with robe on and for the first time ever I saw her long hair down. The whole picture of it make me unable to speak.
Mr. Taylor was getting up for work anyway and Mrs. Taylor was making him breakfast. When I told her my mom said I could eat with them, she laughed and pushed open the screen door. I'll never forget that morning, sitting at their table eating eggs and toast, watching them talk to each other and smile. How Mr. Taylor made a joke and Mrs. Taylor laughed. How she put her hand on his shoulder as she poured coffee and how he leaned his face down to kiss it. And that was all I needed to see. I only needed to see it once to be able to believe for the rest of my life that happiness between two people can exist.
And I remember Sammy walking in and crawling up onto his father's lap, leaning his head into his dad's green coveralls like doing that was the most ordinary thing in the world. Even if it wasn't happening in my house, I knew that just being near it counted for something. When I got back home my mother told me she was ready to wring my neck. She couldn't figure out why in the world I kept going over there to bother those people.
When Morning Star Church needed a new sign it was Mrs. Taylor who painted it. I watched her leaning with a brush over the painted plywood, drawing the shining lines of light around the crosses. By then I already knew her secret. "I need to tell you something about Mrs. Taylor," my mom said one day in a serious voice. "But first you have to promise never to tell anyone, OK?" I nodded. "Mrs. Taylor," my mother said, "is an artist." I could tell from the way she said the word it was supposed to be pretty bad news but I just couldn't figure out how.
After that I looked at the different pictures on Mrs. Taylor's walls, think, "That one of the mill by the river. She painted that. That one of all those guys eating with Jesus. I bet she did that one, too." As I watched her letter that sign so perfectly, I remember thinking that word. ARTIST. And when she let me make one of the shining lines off the cross I made a vow in my head that that was what I was going to be. I vowed that I was going to grow up and be great at it. I was going to do something like make an incredibly gorgeous picture of her to hang where everyone in the world could see it so they could know how great she was.
I never did tell anyone her secret. For 27 years I didn't breathe a word. But now I think it's finally OK to go ahead and spill the beans."
THANK YOU, REGINA, FOR MAKING OUR WORLD A BETTER PLACE.