Acts of goodness

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Social worker Jesse Schele had his doubts about the blond woman when she showed up at his homeless shelter in the city that morning. She was clutching a newspaper. She had come, she told him, to take 76-year-old Carmen Castillo Dickenson home.

"I kept waiting to see what the catch was,'' Schele said.

Dickenson's plight had been chronicled in a newspaper column that day. The immigrant from Nicaragua had been sleeping for a year in bed No. 380 downstairs in the women's section of the Multi-Service Center shelter, a quiet old lady among the screamers and the addicts. Though she had lived in the United States for 30 years, mostly as a nanny and housekeeper, she became caught in a catch-22 of immigration rules. She couldn't receive government benefits, but she also couldn't be hired for legitimate work. She had no money and no children or close family.

"We want her to come live with us,'' Peggy Sugarman told Schele.

Sugarman, who works for a nonprofit foundation, has two daughters, two dogs and a husband who teaches fifth grade. They live in a pretty house with a white picket fence on a quiet street. Sugarman had recently lost her mother. She invited Dickenson to be their family elder.

"This never happens,'' said Schele. He and the shelter's director visited Sugarman's home and came away persuaded, if still amazed, the couple wanted only to give Dickenson a home.

So on a sunny morning in April, Dickenson walked with her three battered suitcases through the gate of the white picket fence. Her room, which had been Peggy's office, had fresh paint, a delicate shade of moss green. There was a loveseat under the picture window. Draped across her bed was a pink-and-white quilt handed down from Peggy's grandmother. And maybe best of all were the bookshelves above her bed. During her year at the shelter, she had spent every day at the Library.

"Look!'' Dickenson said to me, clutching my arm as we sat the other evening on the couch in her room. She pulled out a set of keys. "To the house!''

I asked if she liked living here. Her eyes filled. "To me, it's very important, the feeling.''

"What feeling?''

She cried again. She couldn't find the words in English. "Just the feeling.'' She touched her fist to heart.

Only Jamie, Sugarman's 20-year-old daughter, speaks Spanish, and she's away at college. Peggy started listening to Spanish tapes in the car. Some of the family's friends thought they were nuts. "I have to admit we didn't really think it through in really rational terms,'' Ted said. "We just did it and thought we'd figure it out.''

Dickenson rides a bus to the Main Library, going to church, taking walks, doing housework and laundry over Peggy's increasingly stern objections.

Thirteen-year-old Erica has a simple answer for those who ask who Carmen is and what she's doing in their home.

"She's my adopted grandmother.''

We have become savvy in the ways of goodness, having learned that the televangelist just wants our money, the politician our vote. Goodness, in unadulterated form, seems as quaint and outdated as barn raisings.

Peggy Sugarman's remarkable thing disrupted the rhythm of their home, burdened them with responsibility, added another expense to their middle-class budget. "This might be it for me. This might be what I can do," she said.

The family on Arimo Avenue didn't solve the vast, miserable problem of homelessness. In the big picture, their gesture is no more than the flutter of a ladybug's wings, barely felt, unless you happen to be the woman from bed No. 380.

* Joan Ryan recently returned after a year off to resume a column on family matters for the Pilot-Tribune.