(originally published in Avenue magazine, July 2005)
By Danielle DeRise
A few evenings ago, when the cloudy day was finally turning to dusk, I heard a chorus of joyful voices rising from the street into my second story bedroom window. Exhausted from hours of hauling boxes to my new apartment, I had decided that I’d spend one of my last evenings at this address quietly: curled up with a beer and a book. I couldn’t concentrate.
I peered out of the Venetian blinds and saw cars lining both sides of the street. A group of five black women spanning several generations congregated together, laughing and shouting and joking. To hear it, you’d think they were at a party. This was a wake. For the past two years, I’ve lived across the street from a funeral home.
I was fascinated by this proximity from the moment I moved into the apartment on North 6th street. I signed the lease without hesitation in the summer of 2003, and moved my belongings down from Charlottesville, Virginia, where I had been living at the time. When I told some friends that I could see an old funeral home from my bedroom window, one that had been in business since 1944, they agreed that this neighborhood oddity would provide endless fodder for my writing.
The reality has been much less fruitful than I once expected. I only see the hearse on the day of a funeral and I’ve never once seen a body or even a casket. I know little about the business, except that it is owned and occupied by a woman named Karen, the daughter of the original owner. This is the first time I’ve written about it. In other words, I take the funeral home for granted most of the time; it’s just another large, meticulously landscaped historic property that adds ambience to the street. The only time I really notice it is during a wake, because there isn’t anywhere on the street for my car, which means I have to park in my ridiculously narrow excuse for a driveway and dent the door on my way out.
But I’m also grateful for the hustle-bustle. North 6th near Walnut can sometimes feel unsafe as night approaches, especially to a sheltered, suburban girl like me. I woke up in the middle of my first night in the apartment only to discover several police cars parked outside and an officer pacing the street, shining a flashlight into every backyard. It didn’t take me long to grow accustomed to the “quirks” of downtown Wilmington, but even then, it was reassuring to be surrounded by the frequent activity of the funeral home. Perhaps naively, I told myself that nothing too ominous could happen outside a business.
It also bears mentioning that no air of grief haunts the place. In fact, for the dozens of wakes I’ve witnessed and the hundreds of relatives I’ve seen walking up to the front door dressed in somber church clothes, I can only recall the sound of crying once—a heart-wrenching wail from a woman who I imagined must have lost a child. The vast majority of the time, though, I forget about the death. This is the center of the block, its life line.
Fascinated that this business has thrived in the same residential spot for more than 60 years, that it has survived amidst an otherwise rapidly changing city, I started thinking about the past. After interviewing two of my neighbors to find out more, I learned that there is indeed a quality of permanence surrounding the people of this street, keeping many of them in the same place for decades and pulling others back after decades away.
Mildred, a 45 year-old unit coordinator at Cape Fear Hospital, lives with her 73 year-old mother Elise a few doors down from my former apartment. Elise is a remarkably active woman. I met her because she is a constant presence in the neighborhood; morning, afternoon or evening, if I was out for a run, she was also out walking her dog. Sometimes we chatted about the weather and other times she assumed the role of a surrogate mother, assuring me jokingly that she would keep me out of trouble. On the day that I returned to the neighborhood to clean out my apartment and hand the keys over to the landlords, I got the opportunity to sit down with these two amazing women and talk for two hours about everything from the funeral home to romantic relationships. They had endless stories to tell, many about the incredible history of the neighborhood.
From birth until the time she was nine years old, Mildred lived with her maternal grandmother in a little brick house across from the funeral home on 6th Street. I asked why she didn’t live with her mother, she explained that it was common for young, single women of that time to allow their children to be raised by other relatives. When Mildred’s grandmother passed away in 1975, the house remained in their family but was rented out until 1997, when Mildred finally decided to come home to Wilmington after almost 30 years in the Midwest.
I expected a sentimental story behind such a remarkable return. I’m sure that her fondness for the neighborhood factored into her decision to move back in 1997, but Mildred cited a more practical reason.
“We owned a home,” she said. She also told me about land her family still owns in Brunswick County. “My grandparents maybe paid $1000 for 50 acres [back then].” Considering how rapidly Brunswick County is developing, this was certainly a smart investment, one that Mildred is very proud of her grandparents for securing. “The fact that we maintain ownership of this land is incredible,” she said. “They really knew how to take care of business.”
Mildred recalls being best friends with Karen as a child, the two girls playing with paper dolls and hosting slumber parties together. As adults, the two women don’t talk every day or share the same simple companionship that they once did. But hearing Mildred talk about their childhood made me realize the strength of this bond between them, which in my mind proves that there is something perhaps intangible – calling people back to this neighborhood.
“There’s a depth there that just goes back,” Mildred said about Karen, who as an adult has successfully carried the legacy of her family’s funeral home into the 21st century. In 1997, when Mildred pulled up in front of her childhood home after thirty years away, Karen was absolutely thrilled to see her and acted as if no time had passed.
“[For her] to see the family of the house coming back home,” Mildred said, attempting to describe Karen’s joy, “that’s a feeling I really can’t explain.”
Most of the neighborhood had undergone major changes since the last time Mildred had lived in Wilmington. She recalled that in the 60s, when she was a little girl, the block was occupied by a number of affluent black families and businesses, including doctor’s office on one corner and a schoolhouse on the other, both of which were since converted into single-family homes. Mildred was also surprised to find that the neighborhood was integrated. She says it’s nice to finally see people of all races and backgrounds living peacefully together. Were it not for these changes, I probably wouldn’t have ever been a part of this block’s rich history.
What else can I say? Growing up in suburban Virginia, I always thought that neighborhoods and neighbors were a charming myth. My parents know the names of the people who live in the house next door, and occasionally my Dad borrows a lawnmower from the guy or asks him how his grandchildren are doing. But even if there is anything enchanting about the history and people of our neighborhood, we remain unaware of it. I liked my house and its location well enough as a child, but never would I consider moving back there after thirty years away. There just isn’t a compelling enough reason.
Mildred and Elise’s next-door neighbors, Jason and Bridget and their gigantic black lab named Finn, moved out the same day I did. Bridget got a job up in the Northern Virginia area and so they are relocating for a couple of years. Like Mildred and Elise, instead of selling their home, they’re choosing to rent it out with the plans to someday return to the neighborhood.