My next-door neighbor Lily finally moved last week. She was 97. She had been here the longest of anybody on the block, roughly sixty years, practically came with the tract when it was built in 1953. She came from the Midwest and settled in what must have seemed like heaven at the time, a neighborhood as cozily appointed as what she had left but with California-style perks, such as a backyard pool, good public schools, and proximity to the ocean. Of course Inglewood was all white then, which I suppose was another perk in its own right, though one that whites took for granted. To many people, a good neighborhood was practically defined by the absence of color. That absence was in many ways more crucial than the presence of good schools, good jobs, the Pacific, and all the rest.
I don't know if Lily, who is white, believed this. What I do know is that she stayed. She stayed long after whites pulled out of Inglewood for good in the '60s and '70s, long after her grown kids moved to Orange County and started urging her to do the same, or at least to move out of Inglewood, which for the last forty years or so has not been the place she moved to in the early '50s. But Lily wouldn't budge. The white exodus didn't faze her, or didn't faze her enough to abandon what she considered home. Lily is on the flinty side and not at all sentimental, but it was clear to me when I moved here in 2004 that she loved this place in a way that couldn't be fundamentally altered by politics or social pressure or negative press. She didn't scare easy. Plus she had raised a family here, staked out a vision for the future here, and she was damned if she was going to give that all up.
Acquiescence didn't seem to be part of Lily's character. When my husband and I moved here nine years ago, she was still driving around in a snappy little blue Mercedes. She didn't isolate or live behind closed doors or otherwise do a kind of penance for having the pigheadedness to stay in a place her brethren had abandoned as unlivable. Driving around town in that Mercedes was an act of defiance.
We didn't know Lily well, but we did visit over the years, exchange Christmas gifts, and the like. She told me the story of how she came to Inglewood, and it was clear that this is where she wanted the story to end. She did have her complaints; my husband and I weren't neighborly enough, she insinuated. She hardly saw me and "wouldn't know you if I ran into you on the street somewhere," she said once, her bright blue eyes boring into me. Lily was nothing if not plainspoken. She told another neighbor with whom she spent time that her greatest fear was that she would eventually end up in a nursing facility, away from home. Home was her rock. Without it she would just fall into a sea, drift away.
The move was not her choice. Over the years Lily simply got old. She stopped driving, and then some years after that stopped coming out of her house much at all. She took a few falls, but was more or less okay; she had caretakers and constant oversight. And then one day last week, before anybody had a chance to say goodbye, she was moved. The house will be put up for sale. It looks odd, the house; the cozy gray and white exterior has gone hard and still in a kind of rigor mortis. Somebody came and drained the pool because evidently swimming pools are no longer a draw to potential homebuyers, at least not around here, so it will be paved over. Lily had the only pool on the block, as far as I know. She had it cleaned every week though she hadn't used it in years. It was the idea of it.
Sadder than the empty house is the fact that no one on my block is really noting Lily's departure. She wasn't warm and cuddly, true, but our silence feels deeper than that, more like an inability to mourn the departure of someone whose presence was a real and constant bit of cognitive dissonance. So conditioned are we all to denigrate black neighborhoods, many people figured Lily stayed here for any reason but the obvious one -- that she liked it. That it was her place of choice. Wherever she is living now, I am certain that that is still true. This is still home.