In this time of Islamophobia and hatred, I needed to understand what made a white stranger open her home to us.
Exhausted, my mother sat on the stoop of one of the many four-story brick buildings that dotted our old neighborhood of Borough Park, Brooklyn. It was cold, but she was too tired to care. She had dropped my siblings and me off at school and, in the few hours that remained before our return, she had to weigh her options carefully. Her present circumstances were bleak – jobless, penniless, with three children, and homeless after being turned away by all of her community acquaintances who didn’t have the room, money, or patience to put up with the charity case that our family had become.
“I sat there watching the other families walking down the street,” my mother recalled 33 years later, as we sat together drinking tea in the living room of my large Massachusetts colonial. “The young Hasidic mothers with their children and all of the kind, Hispanic women in the neighborhood would walk past me and go into their homes. And I realized that I didn’t have a home to bring my children to. We were going to have to go into a homeless shelter. It was the worst feeling as a mother.”
It was there on that stoop in 1984 that the elderly white lady with the raspy voice, who owned an apartment building a few doors down, found her. She had been alerted to my mother’s presence by a friendly neighbor who remembered my mother from better days. In the hours before school let out, the stranger offered her spare bedroom, rent-free, to a homeless Pakistani woman and her three children. That offer was a turning point in our lives, saving us from homeless shelters and destitution. And it created a folklore-like legend in our family about the kindly woman who opened her home to us.
But as decades passed, her name disappeared from our collective memories. We knew her simply as “the Landlady.” She had light hair and a round face split with wrinkles, but was otherwise featureless in my memory, a low rumbling voice that said little but was always kind. I remember the swish of housecoats as she walked by in slippers, and the distinct smell of beer mixed with tobacco.
At first, she was simply the main character of a story we told each other during tough periods to remind ourselves about the goodness of humanity. A fable of hope. Over time, however, as mounting xenophobia and Islamophobic rhetoric began to sweep the country, the Landlady became a larger symbol for me of what it really means to be American at a time when my children were beginning to question their place in an increasingly polarized nation.
Growing up as the child of immigrants, I always felt half-American despite my New York birth certificate and blue passport. We were brown and poor with parents who spoke in funny accents and had old-fashioned ideas about clothes, culture, and propriety. We were in a tug of war between two identities. As much as I hated it as a child, I would look at my family and my community and understand why we reeked of otherness to “real” Americans – a term I equated with blonde hair, white skin and pedigrees far removed from any foreign cultural influence.
But my children never really experienced that otherness. Their parents were children of the West, born and bred in the U.S. and Canada. They had lived as expats in foreign countries but home was always America. So, when they saw the angry faces on television, brandishing Tiki torches, proclaiming loudly that immigrants were to be feared and Muslims were to be banned, I was suddenly faced with new questions about their place in white America. My son began to pay close attention to the brownness of his skin and how his white classmates’ experiences were so far from his own. My daughter began to suffer the adolescent taunts of class bullies who praised Donald Trump’s views on Muslims and declared us outsiders. I sought to console my children, even as I withdrew into myself, tired of having to prove that I belonged in the country I was born in.
On those days, when I struggled to shield my children from the white backlash, the Landlady’s hazy visage and her act of charity became the balm that allowed me the strength to reassure them that we still mattered.
But the Landlady’s legend was no longer satisfying to me. Even as I comforted my children, I was at war with myself, suddenly questioning the motivations of a woman who my family had long considered a fairy godmother. For years, I tried to take the Landlady’s generosity at face value. But in a world that was becoming increasingly split into silos based on religion, race and ethnicity, I felt a pull to try to understand why the Landlady, as a white woman, would see something worth saving in a family of brown immigrants from a world apart. I wanted to put a name and a face to the blurry image I had of the kind lady in housecoats and slippers. I knew I had to discover who she was as a person to try to make sense of what she did for us. But her identity was a mystery to me.
* * *
“What was the Landlady’s name?” I asked my mother, as we sat on my couch, watching my children play. “I don’t remember,” she said. “It was a long time ago.”
“Do you remember anything at all about her?” I persisted.
“She was a good woman. When we needed help, God sent her.”
That was all I had to go on as I began my search for the Landlady. That and the address of the apartment building we had lived in 33 years earlier, my mother’s vague recollection that she may have died in late 1985, and a child’s memory of beer and cigarettes and a half-lit apartment. It was a search that took me from my home in a small college town in Massachusetts through the rabbit hole of the Internet and finally landed me in a rural Pennsylvania mining town in the heart of Trump country.
As I began my search, I was flooded with memories and images that I hadn’t thought of in years. A memory of a marbled entryway and geometric tiles leading to a set of stairs. A mattress on the floor and our belongings scattered in a corner. I jokingly told my brother that I thought the Landlady was haunting me, trying to help me find her. Whether it was preternatural direction or latent memories uncovered by my sudden quest for answers, the first tangible clue came out of another jumbled flash of recollections that hit me as I fed my toddler a dinner of chicken curry and roti. I remembered an envelope in a stack of mail, and the name Dorothy.
In Pakistani culture, names hold great significance. Beyond religious or spiritual connotations, the meaning of a name can help determine a person’s personality and, in some cases, foreshadow an individual’s destiny. Dorothy means a gift from God. There was no doubt in my mind that I was onto something.
Realty records from the 1980s provided spotty information and, in some cases, led me to frustrating dead ends. Random Dorothys tied to the old Brooklyn neighborhood came out of the woodwork as I plunged into my investigation. Some were too young, some were too old and some were the wrong race. It was a game of elimination and I was losing badly.
Sitting on my couch, drinking endless cups of tea, I began to wonder if she had ever really existed. Maybe she was a figment of our collective imagination, created to make sense of a time when nothing made sense. But my memories were too visceral to be illusions.
Two weeks went by with little luck. I had gone on Google Earth so many times to look at images of my old apartment building that I had memorized the design of the red and white bricks and the glass entry door, framed in black iron, that stood right below the brownish-red fire escape snaking its way to the top floor. The building hadn’t changed since we lived there. It probably hadn’t changed since the Landlady’s death in 1985.
The thought made me sit up in my chair. I turned to the death certificate data on Ancestry.com, which led me to the photo of a gravesite of a woman named Dorothy in Cambria County, Pennsylvania. I reached out to a friend for help in navigating the convoluted data records of the New York Office of City Register. Within hours, I had an old mortgage document and, more importantly, confirmation. The woman buried in Cambria County, Pennsylvania, was the same woman who saved us years ago.
The Landlady’s name was Dorothy Vollkommer.
Her name changed everything. She was no longer just the Landlady. She was a woman, born Dorothy Andrea in 1921 to German immigrant parents. The child of immigrants, just like me. While I grew up poor in Brooklyn, Dorothy’s childhood was spent in Portage, Pennsylvania – a small, struggling mining town in Cambria County. She had married a Merchant Marine named Walter Vollkommer, and she had lost a little boy named Frederick, who passed away in 1939 from prematurity and a collapsed lung.
I looked over at my own two-year old son, who had also been born prematurely and almost died from a collapsed lung as an infant. My son had survived. Dorothy’s son had not. In that instant, I felt even closer to her, drawn to her grief, finding a bridge of commonality between me and a woman I barely knew.
I delved further into Ancestry.com’s web of connections, sending out messages to distant relatives. I finally received a response from her niece, Veronica Layo.
“Dorothy was my Aunt Dot,” she wrote. “She and my mother were sisters. I would be happy to share with you what I know about her.”
That message began two months of discoveries, tightening the bond I felt with the specter of the Landlady. Through phone calls and e-mails with relatives, including Veronica and her mother Betty – Dorothy’s last surviving sibling – I began to piece together a portrait of a self-made woman, who came from poverty but set off on her own as a teenager to become a housekeeper in Brooklyn when it became clear that the economy was dying in Portage.
She returned to Portage after her marriage to Walter, who everyone called Butter. It was during the peak of the Great Depression and the couple struggled to make ends meet, as work became scarce in the coalmines. But after losing their son, Dorothy and Butter returned to Brooklyn, vowing never to live in poverty again. Along the way, Dorothy had two daughters and bought the rental property that intertwined our lives forever.
The journey into Dorothy’s life could have ended with those discoveries. But I felt there was more to the story, something that was drawing me to the town of Portage.
“You should come to visit us here,” Veronica told me on the phone, during one of our calls. “I’m so proud of my aunt and I would love to meet you.”
It was an invitation I couldn’t refuse.
* * *
The summer rain fell in fits and starts as I drove two hours from Pittsburg International Airport to Portage, Pennsylvania. At the turn of the 20th century, Portage was a thriving coal-mining town, with 10,000 residents. When 27-year-old Fred Andrea – Dorothy’s father – left Gelsenkirchen in Germany to move to Portage, it was a town that promised steady employment courtesy of “coal seams that will last hundreds of years,” according to documents provided by the Portage Area Historical Society.
As I continued my drive east on Route 22, concrete smoothed out into green pastures and tree-lined hills. Eventually, I was the only one on the road, surrounded on both sides by farmland and thin, winding country roads. The scenery became increasingly rural, a far cry from my big city upbringing.
Portage’s coal mines – once the lifeblood of the area that drew immigrants like the Andrea family – have long since been shuttered. Portage of the 21st century features a declining population of barely 2,500 people, with 18.3 percent of that population falling below the poverty line. Portage was one of the towns courted by President Donald Trump during the 2016 election as he promised a revival in the coal industry within the Rust Belt. That relationship became clear to me as I pulled up to the town limit and was greeted by a billboard that proudly declared, “Trump is president. Get over it!”
As I entered the heart of the town, quickly noting the boarded-up storefronts dotting the main street, I felt out of place, secretly worried about my reception in the heart of Trump country. I was a New York-bred liberal Muslim from a family of brown immigrants. What connection could I possibly find in rural Portage?
And then I met Veronica, a beautiful woman in her early sixties wearing a blue floral dress that matched her eyes. She greeted me at the door to the remodeled Victorian inn I had booked and if I had any doubts of my reception, they were gone as Dorothy’s niece smiled at me and we hugged like long lost family members.
“I feel like I’ve known you forever,” she said to me, laughing as we walked across the street to the Chatterbox, the town’s meeting spot for coffee and gossip. “But it makes sense in a way. I do believe that people don’t realize how valuable their lives are and how one life interconnects with so many others. People unknowingly depend on that one life and can make such a difference. In this day and age, it’s more important than ever to see how valuable the threads of life are and how connected we all are to each other.”
I looked at her in surprise. I had said almost the same words to my sister before I flew out to Portage. It was the very reason I was here.
At the Chatterbox, the board members of the Portage Area Historical Society waved me in, eager to share the story of the little town that had somehow become part of my own story. What I found surprised me, tying me to this little community, in a way I couldn’t have imagined.
“We are a town made up of immigrants,” said Irene Huschak, president of the Portage Area Historical Society. “When you talk about Dorothy and what she did for you, this was the culture of the town. Strangers helping strangers, people taking others in, whether they had a boarding house or taking in family in bad times.”
Over coffee, Huschak and the other board members painted a picture of a town built on the backs of scrappy immigrants, many of whom had fled poverty and strife in Europe, seeking riches across the ocean. Portage residents, like many Muslim-Americans today, had suffered their own religious persecution in the early and mid 20th century, as the Ku Klux Klan marched through the town, burning crosses, targeting Catholics and Jews in the hopes of advancing Protestant supremacy in the area.
“People would see the glow of the fires when the Klansmen marched through the town, and they would hide out of fear,” Huschak explained, adding that neighbors would step up to conceal those being targeted. “Unfortunately, we still see that kind of hatred and ignorance today for different groups. It makes me sad.”
As I explored the small town, I was forced to confront my own deep-seated biases. But I realized that many of the Portage residents’ experiences mirrored my own, even if their faces looked nothing like mine.
In an odd twist of fate, I felt connected to these strangers from a small coal-mining town, whom I would never have gotten to know had it not been for the legendary Landlady. At a time when I was drowning in the xenophobia and divisions plaguing the country, wallowing in my own anger and prejudices, I felt like Dorothy was guiding me to a new sense of peace.
As the summer afternoon waned into early evening, I stopped at Dorothy’s gravesite to pay my respects. Thirty-three years earlier, a stranger had changed our lives. In that moment, kneeling on the grass before her headstone, I realized Dorothy had once again changed my life.
For months I had struggled with my place in America. It was my home, but I felt increasingly like an outsider. I could handle the sneering faces of those who saw little humanity in my brown skin. But I realized I was exhausted by the overly sympathetic allies that only seemed to draw even more attention to my otherness. In their kind words and gentle pats of reassurance, I felt pitied and foreign, allowed into the club because of a sense of political correctness and guilt rather than any real merit in myself as a person. Their benevolence came at a cost to me.
But the Landlady was different. Her altruism came without demands, not even an expectation to be remembered. When she helped a Pakistani mother sitting on a stoop in the cold, she didn’t see her color or her background. She saw a woman with three children, an immigrant like her own parents, who needed a hand. In her generosity and acceptance, I saw another side of America that I had almost forgotten – one that superseded any ingrained views on culture, race and religion.
In searching for her, I found a renewed sense of belonging.