Phyllis Cremer: “A Big Bowl of Peaches and Mrs. H”

“Would you like some peaches?” We froze in the middle of our game of tag, my little brother, my two sisters, and me. We looked at each other with big brown eyes and whispered in unison, “she talked to us.”

If she continued to speak to us, none of us heard another word. Within seconds, we had quickly ran inside the house to tell our mom what had happened.

When the neighbor’s peach, plum and apricot trees were full of fruit, they would hang down just within finger touch reach on our side of the fence. The fruit looked bright and juicy on its branches. Some days, we would play a game called “Adam and Eve.” Our mom wouldn’t allow us to pick the fruit off the tree because “it wasn’t our tree.”

So now the moment had come to meet the lady next door.

A few minutes later, the doorbell rang. Nearly knocking down our mom, we ran for the front door. “Slow down, slow down, someone is going trip and fall” my mother chided us. As the door opened, there was Mrs. Hildebrandt.

She was a little shorter than Mom, who is five foot even. Mrs. Hildebrandt had curly white hair, silver cat-eyed glasses that covered her sharp, blue, smiley eyes. The pink lipstick that she wore was just the right shade, not too bright and not too dark. From top to bottom, she was blue and white. Mrs. Hildebrandt wore a white and sky blue gingham dress and a solid blue apron that matched the sky blue shade in her dress. The best part of her outfit was the same color blue high heels. The whole ensemble was pulled together by her pearl necklace and earrings. I thought she looked like the summer version of Mrs. Santa Claus.

“I hear them playing in the backyard every day.” Her hands were outstretched towards my mom with a big bowl of big yellow peaches. “I don’t like the fruit to go to waste,” she said with a serious tone. She looked away and was quiet for a moment. We would find out later that Mrs. Hildebrandt was raised in an orphanage with her brothers and sisters. When my mom opened that screen door, she invited Mrs. Hildebrandt into our home, and into our lives, until she passed away at the age of 85, almost twenty years later.

Our previous neighborhood was like the show “The Wonder Years,” only all the kids were black. The neighborhood was full of kids that covered a wide age range from 2 to 13 years old. No one on our street could say they were lonely because there was always someone to play with. Our summer days seemed to be filled with endless games of tag while the parents had time to sit with each other talking about grown-up stuff.

A few years later with the birth of my little brother, my parents moved off the block to buy a bigger home. They kept in touch with the old neighborhood through birthday parties or seeing each other at the grocery store. It eased their isolation a bit, because the new neighborhood and hardly any kids and everyone but us was white. Until that knock on the door from Mrs. Hildebrandt.

She was the first person to make any contact with our family. It would take another two years before another neighbor would extend a hello to my parents. She made such a difference in our lives that we gave her a nickname, Mrs. H.

Mrs. H. loved to tell us stories about her life as a little girl. Some days, for no apparent reason, in the late afternoon, Mrs. H. would just come by to be with us when our parents were at work. She would sit in our big green chair in the living room. She would listen to our chatter or watch tv shows on our 30-inch screen until dinner time when she went home.

My favorite story was about Mrs. H’s big sister, Catherine, and how she tried to raise her six brothers and sisters after their mom died and their dad had left them. It was too much for a sixteen year-old to balance keeping a household of six kids and getting work to support them. So Catherine found an orphanage that wouldn’t separate their family. She would visit them every Sunday and take them to Mass. It was their Sunday ritual until Mrs. H. was ready to leave the orphanage herself.

Slowly, Mrs. H. became a part of our family.

Mrs. H. remembered our birthdays with $5.00 bills in envelopes. She made us pies and cookies for the holidays.  One afternoon before she left to go home, Mrs. H. looked at me with her blue eyes and said “let’s walk to church together; we don’t have to sit together. You can get your donuts after Mass and then we can walk home.”

A new priest, Fr. Mark, was assigned to our parish. He was full of energy and had a desire to create a vibrant community in our parish. It didn’t sit well with Mrs. H., who was just getting used to Mass being said in English and not in Latin.

During our walks home from Mass, we would talk with Mrs. H. about the changes that were happening around the Church. A few months later, she found an opportunity to speak Fr. Mark herself. Their conversations continued until she passed away. During her funeral Mass,

Fr. Mark gave a beautiful eulogy about Mrs. H’s inquisitive nature and how she always found the best in everyone she met.

On Sunday mornings, Mrs. H. dressed up like a character in a Norman Rockwell painting: pearls, hat, gloves, overcoat with nylons and heels. We would surround her with laughter, skipping, and running, wearing our bell bottom jeans, brightly colored t-shirts and sneakers.

So, why is this little old white lady walking with those four black kids?

If they only knew it began with a big bowl of big yellow peaches.

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