Every year at Christmastime I think of my friend and neighbor, Mrs. Gerstine Scott. She was born on Christmas day, 1930, in a dirt poor Texas town close to the Louisiana border. In the late 1940s she moved by herself to the Bay Area, raised a son and a pack of foster children, worked for 30 years as a cook and maid at various UC Berkeley fraternity houses, and presided over our North Oakland neighborhood with an iron fist.
In April 1994, when my husband Ralph had a bicycling accident that left him a C-4 quadriplegic, Mrs. Scott took over our household. By the time Christmas rolled around that year, she was my constant companion. We went everywhere together: to Ralph’s medical appointments, to the pharmacy, the grocery store, the movies. We were inseparable, and so it was only natural that several days before Christmas we found ourselves at Longs Drugstore on 51st Street in Oakland, searching for a Christmas tree.
I was not in the holiday spirit and I wasn’t optimistic that we would find a tree that would fit inside a house full of bedpans, leg bags, syringes, bandages, and adult diapers. But Mrs. Scott was bursting with Christmas good cheer. She wanted me to get a tree, a big tree. It was Christmas, after all, a time to commemorate our good fortune, a time to celebrate her birthday.
At the tree lot I picked out a small, skinny treetop. As I dragged it across the busy parking lot, Mrs. Scott followed behind me, offering suggestions and advice, cautioning me to be careful of my back. I stopped and let her catch up. She was dressed, as always, in a bizarre assortment of brilliant, mismatched clothes: a bright paisley scarf was wrapped around her head, tinkling silver earrings hung from her earlobes, a purple and red dress covered a pair of lime green stretch pants, gold slippers graced her wide, flat feet and a loopy strand of plastic pearls flapped around her neck.
“Mrs. Scott,” I yelled to her above the tinny Christmas music that blared from speakers on the light posts. “Aren’t you getting a tree?”
“Honey,” she laughed, “don’t you know? I am the Christmas tree!”
And it was true. She was like a Christmas tree, an angel, a holiday force all wrapped up in one big soft package of crazy clothing, inexpensive jewelry, comfortable and smooth warm flesh.
On Sept. 6, 2001, Mrs. Scott passed away, but her spirit lives on at our house as do a number of other souls who have provided us with hope and light these past 10 difficult years. There’s Harka Bhujel, who came to us from Nepal, lived in our home for five years and gave us his heart. There’s Jerry Carter, who came from the streets, stayed with us for almost a decade and went back from where he came. There’s Leroy Ligons, who shared an upstairs bedroom with Jerry and joined Mrs. Scott on April 11 after a brave battle with lung cancer. And now there’s Hans Enrique who helps me take care of Ralph and lives in the room that Jerry and Leroy once occupied. Like Mrs. Scott, Hans is a big person, full of love, empathy and religious zeal. The Nicaraguan version of Harka, Jerry, Leroy and Mrs. Scott rolled into one huge package, Hans has a lot of important shoes to fill (or in the case of Harka, a pair of flimsy flip flops). But when Hans wraps his strong arms around me, and like Mrs. Scott, presses me to his chest, rubs my head and tells me everything is going to be all right, I believe him.
“Suzanna,” Hans shouts to me a few days before Christmas. He is standing outside, looking at the front of our house. “We need to hang some Christmas lights around the windows. Leave ‘em up all year-round. Turn ‘em on for Easter, Fourth of July, Halloween and Thanksgiving.” “No,” I answer firmly. “We don’t need to. You’re like Mrs. Scott and the Christmas tree. You are our holiday lights.”