I first met the older woman who lived next door when her son inadvertently parked in our space in the shared garage of our apartment building. Frustrated, I knocked on her door to complain, but when Pearl answered, she was hobbling. She had just broken her ankle and she needed the space. I felt like a big jerk. It shouldn’t matter, after all, whose parking space was whose. We moved to another empty space in the lot. A few days later, Pearl slipped a handwritten thank you note under our door expressing hope that we might continue our “good neighbor policy.” She invited me for tea, but I never went.
In the months that followed, I saw Pearl in the hallway or on the stairs. Her ankle had healed and she began walking around our neighborhood in her brightly-colored sun hat and dark glasses. After the parking incident, we said hello to each other in passing. Then, slowly and hesitantly, we started to exchange pleasantries. She asked me what I did for a living, since I was home during the day. I told her I was a graduate student and writer who studied science and medicine in China.
“I am from China,” she said. “And I am a writer, too.”
A few days after we discovered our shared mutual interests, Pearl knocked on my door with a book in her hand, an autobiography of her life growing up in a village during the Chinese Revolution. Her latest book, she said, was the story of her time as a famous revolutionary’s wife. Then she asked if I might accompany her to a reading of her work in San Francisco.
“You see,” she said, “my son cannot attend. He is too busy. And I am afraid to come back to Berkeley at night by myself.”
“I’d be happy to come. We’ll drive you home,” I replied. “Good neighbor policy.”
Months, then years, passed as I struggled with my degree requirements and the onus of writing my own memoir. Pearl and I became closer through our chats about books, China, life in California. When she asked me what I was working on, I explained that I was trying to craft an account of my own childhood, about learning to survive the separate early losses of my brother, my mother, and my father. Unlike most people who heard my story and either felt sorry for me or were simply shocked by all the tragedy, Pearl placed her small, wrinkled hand on my arm as we stood in the bare stairwell of our building. She looked up into my face with sharp eyes and said: “I know what it is to lose people, to have a difficult youth. We are a lot alike. You are strong, so I will not worry about you.” Whenever I saw Pearl after that, she asked me how the memoir was coming along, what I was reading in my classes, when I would head back to China.
Then one afternoon Pearl left me another handwritten note – almost identical to the first in its brevity and formality – asking me to stop by. She was moving to a smaller apartment and wanted to give me some things. When I entered her home, books were everywhere – on shelves, on tables, on her desk, on the floor.
“I can’t take everything, so I want you to have some books. As many as you like,” she said as I started combing through the titles. She had original editions of Jonathan Spence’s famous works on China, all of Van Gulik’s mysteries set in China, and a host of old, dog-eared paperbacks of classics – Gide, Gogol, Flaubert, Kafka, Beauvoir, Herodotus. I was in heaven. As I piled up stacks to take with me, Pearl talked to me about losing her husband, about grief, about aging, about living alone.
“The time comes,” Pearl said, watching as I flipped casually through her reading life, “when you have to let go of the past. It is too much to carry into the future. I love these books, but it is time for me to let them go.”
Pearl moved out and I forgot about her books for years, buried as I was in my own reading and the writing of my dissertation. But as I prepared to relocate, I started going through my books, Pearl’s books. They are filled with underlines and scribbled notes. As I read her underlined passages, I realized that Pearl had not given me books, she had given me her intellectual history, a roadmap of her thinking, a key to becoming a better writer. In her last act of good neighbor policy, Pearl had given me a part of her past so that I could use it to write my own future.