Editor’s Note: In August 2017, we ran a My First Home piece by a beloved colleague, Helen Morissette. In her essay, she talks about the reception her family received when they moved into their Boston home, and recalls the tragedy that occurred next door.
“We were one of the first black families to buy a home in Roxbury. A short time later, my parents learned that our neighbors had signed a petition claiming we shouldn’t be living there because we had too many children. They had no clue with whom they were dealing.” The family persevered and still own that home today.
Little did Helen know that her account would resonate with so many, including a woman who was shocked to read about her own family’s loss — recounted by someone she didn’t remember meeting. …
Sometimes when you do something on a whim, it can take you places and touch others in truly unexpected ways. The My First Home piece I wrote more than a year ago (“Pressured to leave, determined to stay,’’ Aug. 27, 2017) did exactly that. I wrote it not only to tell a story, but to relate what it was like to grow up in a neighborhood that initially didn’t accept you because of your race and the size of your family. It was 1950 in Roxbury when we moved there.
I received so many messages from folks who had read the article. I’m still overwhelmed by the response.
That September, I read an e-mail that made me sit back in disbelief. I had to close and reopen it to make sure I was reading it correctly.
In telling that story, I had mentioned the death of our next-door neighbor, Mr. DeBella, who suffered a heart attack while on a ladder trimming bushes. This person wrote that she was so moved by the story that it brought her to tears. “You see I am the daughter of John DeBella, who fell off that ladder,’’ she wrote.
The woman, Donna DeBella, said she remembers as if it were yesterday, even though she was only 10 years old at the time. She recounts that day in the companion essay to this piece.
She had told that story of her father’s death a million times but was surprised to find it recounted by someone she didn’t even know. Would I like to meet, she asked.
Yes, I said.
We continued to exchange e-mails. She wanted to know the name of the teen who rushed to her father’s side when he fell.
It had to be one of my brothers, I explained, but I didn’t know which one. My mother would know, I wrote, explaining that she was 94 and still as sharp as ever. She did. Turns out, it was my brother Randolph, we called him “Junior,’’ who rushed to aid Donna’s father. (My mother said some of the neighbors were nice, and some were a little standoffish because we were one of the first black families to purchase a home in the area. The DeBellas were nice.)
We arranged to meet Donna at Blue Bunny Bookstore and Mocha Java Espresso Bar and Café in Dedham. My mother and one of my sisters would be coming, too. We arrived early and barely got through the door when we spotted a short woman with a fabulous haircut. She embraced me so hard, as if we had known each other forever. We cried. She wouldn’t stop hugging my mother. Donna gave her a plant (very classy), and they hugged again.
My mom not only knew who she was, but that her aunt, uncle, and grandmother had come from Sicily. Stories flowed: names, who had a dog, whose yard had the best fruit trees (the pear tree in the DeBellas’ yard was one of them). We brought pictures, including one showing the two homes together.
It was a wonderful four hours. We cried, laughed, took photos, and hugged numerous times. Mainly, Donna was “thankful’’ that we brought back memories, happy and sad.
We promised to meet again and bring more family members — and food.
It’s amazing how one event — and warmth, kindness, and humanity — can bring neighbors together even decades later.
Postscript: Helen’s mother, Melba Green, a licensed practical nurse and mother of 11, died on July 9. She was 95.
Helen Morissette is an administrative assistant who has worked at the Globe for more than a quarter century. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Subscribe to the Globe’s free real estate newsletter — our weekly digest on buying, selling, and design — at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter @globehomes.