The character Atticus Finch makes a statement to his young daughter Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view-until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” This statement proved true when I made friends with an old couple living in my building.
Most people in the building don’t like them. The wife spends her days feeding pigeons in the neighborhood. Her husband never leaves the apartment. Sometimes I would hear his shouting in the hallway.
My other neighbors warned me about this old couple. They said: “Stay away from that old woman. She is crazy and dirty. Her husband is nuts.” As a little girl, I listened to these statements. I avoided this couple. To be truthful, I was afraid of them.
I often saw the wife on the street. She was bent over and wearing a ripped gray jacket with lots of stains on it. She was feeding pigeons from a bag filled with bird seed. My neighbors would shout at her, telling her she was contaminating the area. I was so disturbed by these scenes and her shabby appearance.
But my parents explained to me that she was actually a nice lady and that our neighbors should be more tolerant of her eccentric behavior. They explained that the couple were Holocaust survivors and had a hard life. My mother said: “When people have to fight to survive, they become different.”
One day, on my way home from school, I ran into my nemesis, a neighbor who was the school bully. This girl never missed the chance to pick on me. I guess I was an easy target. I had a speech problem that affected the way I spoke. It was hard to defend myself. The bully was having a field day abusing me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my elderly neighbor approaching. She was walking so slowly. Finally she reached us. “You leave that girl alone,” she shouted at the bully. It worked! The bully was actually frightened of the old lady. She ran away and left me alone.
I was so surprised. When people shouted at her for feeding birds, she never said a word to defend herself. It made me wonder why she would protect me from a bully when she never protected herself against the harsh criticisms of others. Now, she turned to me and spoke: “I see you a lot. But you always run away from me. You don’t have to be afraid of me. I am misunderstood by others, just like you.” Then, she turned away and went back to feeding her pigeons. As I stood there, she turned back to me again. “Don’t listen to what others say. You should find out for yourself.”
Suddenly, my elderly neighbor no longer looked like a dark figure. She seemed more like a lone bird herself. I gave her my friendliest smile. She continued to speak. “A long time ago, people listened to rumors about my people and many of my people suffered,” she said. “When I was about your age, my whole family was killed and I had to escape. I feed pigeons because I know what it is like to be hungry. Like everybody else pigeons have the right to live. Who are we to say who should live or die?” Her voice was soft as the flapping of a pigeon’s wings. As my hands shook and tears came to my eyes, the face of my watch looked like a six-pointed star.
A few days later, I visited her and met her husband. Like his wife, he was a Holocaust survivor. He had been injured and could barely walk. That was the reason he never left the apartment. When he got up from the sofa, he looked like an old creased newspaper that was being unfolded. He said: “The Nazis didn’t let me take my sister with me on the train because she was too young. Later I found out they murdered her.” Each sentence of our conversation revealed another terrible secret.
He turned to me and said: “My wife told me our neighbor bullies you. Remember, when someone does something to you, it has more to do with them than it has to do with you.” I realized that he was right. My fear of my elderly neighbors was more about me than about them. Speaking with them was like finding an old newspaper in the attic with the words still fresh and meaningful. I was a kid listening to their stories about their own childhood. I could walk around in their skin and then judge them as the wise, kind and wonderful people that they are.