I first met Doris at a neighborhood block meeting in 2003. Nothing fancy, that meeting. Just a small gathering of people perched on folding chairs on the sidewalk in front of our neighbor Marta’s house. A guy named Don told us about some troublemakers messing with his garage, and he peppered the air with expletives. I shot a look at my girls—just two of them then, ages one and three—wondering if they caught the colorful language. Marta reined in the talk, funneling it in useful directions. And Doris floated above it all; she leaned into my double stroller, making funny faces at my babies until they laughed.
Doris worked in Mr. N’s yard in the summers, her face mottled from heat and hard work, sweat dripping off her chin. She bagged leaves in the fall and shoveled snow in the winter for him too. We exchanged waves and small talk whenever I spied her outside.
Then came the gifts. Doris dropped off little surprises for our girls on holidays. She worked at Litin Paper Company and snagged some good deals, she said. Each of the girls got orange pumpkin-shaped bags of goodies on Halloween, trinkets in Santa bags at Christmas, and little baskets of treasures for Easter. We’d come home from our out-of-town New Year’s festivities to jolly noise-makers and candy on our back step. And her fondness for Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka on Valentine’s Day came in the shape of hearts filled with chocolates—one for each girl.
Inspired by Doris, we decided to do some doorstep treats of our own for the neighbors. We began our Christmas cookie venture in 2004, the year Dicka was born. Just because people don’t normally deliver homemade cookies to strangers in a city neighborhood didn’t mean we wouldn’t.
Doris ranked high on our list. We trekked over to her street, a plate of goodies in my right hand, the baby propped on my left hip. My walking littles clutched the hem of my coat, and we trudged to her door through thick snow. Maybe she was too busy shoveling for the neighbors to clear her own. My hands full, I assigned the job of knocking to the toddler and preschooler.
A face in the door’s window. The sound of an unlatching deadbolt, then a chain sliding off its rails.
“Look who it is,” Doris said, her smile warming the air between us.
Behind her, the inside of the house was dark, the living room stacked with newspapers and containers. Near the doorway, a cat curved around a cardboard box, slinking toward us to check our identities.
Flicka handed her the gift of treats. And after that, the girls took turns delivering holiday cheer on red plates each Christmas until the year Doris didn’t come to her door anymore.
“Does she even still live here?” Ricka said.
“I don’t know.” I headed to the woman’s back yard, my now preteen girls scooting along behind me.
We dodged snow-covered garden tools and antique crates, rusted lawn ornaments and a broken wheel barrow, crumbled bricks and bent chicken wire. Maybe leaving a plate of cookies on Doris’ back step was safer. Maybe if we left our gift there it wouldn’t be snapped up by a passerby or squashed by a mail carrier.
But that day, the truth blew through my winter coat: we only knew the gift end of Doris and nothing else of her life. And even then, something told me our visits to her house were almost all used up.
Last week—fifteen years after meeting Doris—I clicked through a Facebook page for neighbors in our small corner of the city. One man grumbled about the meth houses too close to ours. Then he tossed out some facts about a certain address I knew well.
Doris’ house is boarded up now, and there are squatters there. She died a few months ago.
My mouth dried up. Where did our friend spend her last days? Did she have friends or family to see her off to the other side? How did her story end? Did she know we loved her?
I didn’t have the details I wanted, but I knew this much: As sure as Christmas cookies and snow and gift bags left on steps, the City that had hammered up those boards could take them down again, and goodness could move back in.
Doris may be gone, but hope was a survivor.
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*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.