“Life, misfortunes, isolation, abandonment, poverty, are battlefields which have their heroes; obscure heroes, sometimes greater than the illustrious heroes.”
In the fall of 2006, Idene Wilkerson, or “Ma Siss,” as everyone calls her in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, took me, a homeless, penniless, 29-year-old attorney, into her arms, like a son, no questions asked.
Ma gave me a place to stay in her Drayton Avenue walkup while I got my feet back on the ground, in exchange for a promise on my part to help out around the neighborhood. It was a promise that turned out to be a full-time job, and one that I eagerly, and often clumsily, embraced. I soon found myself doing things that had never needed doing in the places where I grew up: accompanying parents to court, taking teenagers to answer grand jury subpoenas after shootings, sitting with families in hospitals after overdoses, convincing young men not to retaliate after getting jumped, etc.
We played football in the street, video games until early in the morning, and laughed as much as we cried. The work was the most important, fulfilling work I have ever done, and there was, tellingly, as I have found with most work of this kind, no salary for it.
There were cold, dark winter nights when I would come home from a day of running around, exhausted, frozen, and starving. I would walk up the steps to my room in the building Ma owned, full of hunger and pride, angry and conflicted over whether to knock and ask for food. I often decided against it, ashamed to be begging for food with an advanced degree on my resume.
Nearly every time this would happen, I would walk up the stairs, go into my room brooding and griping, and no sooner take off my coat than a knock would come at the door, one of Ma’s children or grandchildren, or one of the neighbors, or one of the many people that helped out around the neighborhood, with a hot plate of food, baked chicken, greens, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, beans, black eyed peas, and so on, wrapped in foil, condensation steaming on the underside, set aside for me, and a small black plastic bag full of canned goods, vegetables, and other groceries. I have never met someone with such intuition for people in need. Somehow she knew. She always knew.
And I wasn’t special. Ma did this for everyone that entered the orbit of her Quincy Street neighborhood. Free meals at the church, rides to the doctor, the store, job interviews, a spare couch if you need one, a patch on the roof, some extra bedding, and always, in my case, and many, many others, a hot plate if you are hungry.
How she managed to do this well into her seventies I do not know. But that’s Ma Siss, one of the selfless, resplendent souls that Hugo had in mind when he spoke of heroes. Ma Siss deserves a monument in the City of Boston, and that would not be nearly enough.
Ma Siss dramatically altered the course of my life, welcoming me into a world that somehow, shamefully, after twenty years of formal education, I did not know existed. I began to see the world clearly for the first time, to be quiet for the first time, to experience community for the first time, and, perhaps most importantly, to see all of the things I’d been taking for granted for the first time.
Thank you, Ma, for treating me like a son, for loving and caring for me, no questions asked. Without you, my life to this point, and all of the things I experienced, would never have been possible. You will be terribly missed, and adoringly remembered.