Two doors down lived an old jazz musician named Charlie. We saw him often in the summer, but the wintertime was lonely. Sometimes we’d glimpse him coming out of his house in the frigid months—his tall frame as thin as a reed—bent over his walker. He’d gingerly navigate the icy sidewalk, and we’d rush to help. A golden excuse to see him.

“Bless your hearts,” he’d say, his voice warming us.

Charlie invited our girls—new bike riders back then—to use his big driveway as a practice pad. They scooted around on their wheels as he looked on from his deck. And we’d gather on that same deck on warm summer evenings while Charlie whisked us back to long ago days of being black in the south.

“The fields went right up to a person’s back door. No sidewalks back then, mind you. Only dirt roads, and we walked in the middle. And we sat on our front porches to watch the neighborhood. It’s why black folks do it today.”

He offered our girls sodas in glass bottles, and they clustered around him, gripping his words like new marbles. “Don’t ever smoke,” he told them, holding up a lit cigarette between two long, slender fingers. He took a drag and explained he had survived cancer in the 1980s—losing part of a lung in the process—but the habit still held him. Unblinking, the girls solemnly nodded.

One day, I told Charlie that Husband and I planned to hear his band—Beasley’s Big Band—play at the Wabasha Street Caves, an old speakeasy in St. Paul. Delighted, he invited me to choose a song, and he would dedicate it to me. I sat on the couch in his living room—the air around me tinged with kindness and cigarette smoke—and surveyed the foot-high stacks of sheet music on his coffee table. I thumbed through his playlists. At the Caves, Charlie and his band played “Someone to Watch Over Me” by Ella Fitzgerald, dedicating the song to me. And that night, I heard Charlie’s heart wail through the bell of his saxophone.

One summer evening in 2009, we heard Beasley’s Big Band perform at the Como Park Pavilion. Husband and the girls abandoned their folding chairs to dance. Between songs, Charlie told the audience that because of his recent cancer diagnosis, this would be his last performance at the Pavilion. The crowd hushed. But then his tone lifted, and with a wobbly finger, Charlie pointed out our girls. “There are my sweet little neighbors over there, dancing with their daddy.”

Charlie passed away early in 2010, eight years after we first met him on our front sidewalk. His memorial service at the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center in north Minneapolis brimmed with mourners. Charlie’s loved ones told about the man I knew from two doors down, and I clasped the stories to my chest.

After the service, Charlie’s children invited us to his house. While we visited, they sifted through his things, sorting the mundane items that had belonged to someone extraordinary. I drank in their stories, sitting in the same spot on the couch as I had the day I flipped through his playlists.

Their dad, a saxophonist and the first black band member at North High School in the 1940s, was invited—along with his school band—to perform in Washington, D.C., but several parents protested. The band teacher placated the disgruntled ones, assuring them Charlie would sit, eat, and sleep separately from the rest. The teacher arranged for him to stay with a black family in the city. In Washington, D.C., Charlie, a featured soloist, was applauded by a white audience but had to take his meals in the kitchen with the black staff who were proud of him and gave him all he wanted to eat.

Charlie enlisted in the Army Air Corps during World War II in one of the military’s first racially-integrated units. He played in the band—a safe place, he felt—since all the members respected each other as performers. He later taught music in universities in Texas, Mississippi, and Tennessee. And in his adventures, he played on Beale Street with B.B. King and in Chicago with Duke Ellington’s band.

Then right there in the living room amongst the cardboard boxes, his children packed away Charlie, the musician, and showed me Charlie, the father.

“My mother divorced him when she was pregnant with me,” Arneida, the first-born, said. “We didn’t have any contact with him.”

“He married my mother next,” said Tracy. “Then, when I was twelve years old, I snooped around in some things Dad had left behind when he separated from my mom. I found divorce papers stating his former wife had sole custody of their daughter. A daughter! But the papers mistakenly listed the daughter’s name as ‘Anita.’ For twenty-one years, I searched for her, contacting every Anita with her birthdate in the United States. When I learned her true name—Arneida—I found her that very day.”

Then they told of Barbie, Charlie’s youngest daughter with another woman. Because of her mother’s mental illness, Barbie lived with her grandparents. Over the years, the older children kept in touch with her. Then one day, Barbie’s grandparents died in a car crash. Arneida swept in, and from then on, raised her half-sister.

Tracy’s gaze swept over a worn Bible. “I asked my father about his heart—his heart for God, you know. He said, ‘I’ve given the Lord a lot to forgive. But dear daughter, I’ve squared it all with Him, and He’s forgiven it all.’”

I settled back on the couch, marveling at this family who drew together because of one man, found a lost one against all odds, and nurtured one of their own when she was orphaned. Even though he was gone, I knew grace had gathered Charlie’s children in the first place. And it would hold them now.

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