My next store neighbor on 29th street in Manhattan is a woman named Nancy. She is a petite Hispanic woman with a mile wide smile and gorgeous, perfectly straight hair she dyes blonde. Every once in a while she will let it go back to her natural grey, and when she does, she is regal and quite handsome. When it is platinum she looks like a Latina Marilyn Monroe and she is all soft and bright and luminous.
For the first five years or so that I lived on my block, I would see Nancy with her two children, the tall and husky Eduardo and the Jon Secada look-alike Raphael, or Rafi as she called him. There didn’t seem to be a dad, but one day Nancy appeared to look pregnant and a few months later her daughter Nicole was born. Then they got Anthony, a giant rottweiller, who was a great big baby and never wanted Nancy to leave the house.
Nancy was also the super of her building and I would often see her outside, sweeping the sidewalk, taking out the garbage and vacuuming the apartment hallways. I didn’t really know her then, but we nodded when we passed each other. Back then I would only define our relationship as polite.
When I got my first dog Scruffy, I hired a dog walker who lived three doors down, and I got the full scoop on Nancy. The boys weren’t her sons, they were her brothers children. He apparently was in jail, and there was no mother anymore. Nancy took the kids in and raised them as her own. Maria, my dog walker, referred to Nancy as a saint.
Three years ago, Nancy started to garden in front of her building. The apartment she lives in had a large, empty front open vestibule where the garbage bins were held. She had Rafi and Eduardo move the bins up to the sidewalk and slowly, she started filling the space with large clay pots and containers. She planted roses of every imaginable color—radiant purples and pinks and fluorescent reds and yellows. She was out in her “garden,” as I referred to it, every single day as I came home from work, beginning in March and going way into the first frost in November.
Nancy’s garden gave me an opportunity to get to know her—I have a backyard behind my apartment—and know how brutal Manhattan can be to a gardener. I couldn’t help but be amazed and impressed at both her prowess and her easy skill.
Last year I decided to replace some of the containers holding the boxwoods in my garden. Rather than just throw them away or put them out on the street, I figured I would ask Nancy if she wanted them. I went to her building and buzzed. She let me in and for the first time, I got to see where she lived. Nancy lives in a one-room apartment. It doesn’t have a bathroom, she shares a bathroom with the other tenants on her floor. There is no kitchen, just a small area with a tiny fridge and miniature oven. There is a loft bed with a ladder to get you to the top. And there were a few chairs and a small round table, probably no more than 12 inches wide. If there was ever a moment in my life that I felt humbled, this was one. I thought of all the years I have lived alone and complained about closet space or a leaky faucet or ugly kitchen cabinets. I thought of all the times I felt that things weren’t good enough. As I looked at this woman who took care of three children and a giant dog in this tiny room, who had obviously struggled to make it the very best for herself and her family, I was ashamed of my good fortune and what seems to be my never ending quest for household perfection. I asked her one question: where do the boys sleep? She nodded to the floor. I looked at the boys and they could care less. They had a home and a wonderful, extraordinarily generous woman to take care of them and a good meal every night. To them, quite simply, they had it made.
Every year Nancy’s garden gets bigger and more beautiful. On the really hot summer days, some of the tenants in her building come out with chairs and bask in the beauty, others bring makeshift portable bbq’s and boom boxes. I was walking my dogs yesterday in Manhattan’s glorious 85 degree weather and saw that this year Nancy’s now seven year old daughter, Nicole, had brought out an inflatable pool. I complimented Nancy on another spectacular garden. The flowers were glorious, cascading everywhere, the color spellbinding and happy and carefree. When I told her how extraordinary it was, she thanked me and said simply as she splashed at Nicole in her plastic pool: Debbie…this is how I make life beautiful.
So I ask all the dear readers of Speak Up on a seriously beautiful spring day in New York City: how do you make your lives beautiful?