Long ago, when the world was younger and her paychecks were steady, Betty Fereira made little Christmas trees out of ice cream and the rent was never a question mark. She worked at the Carnation creamery in Oakland then, and she got to eat not just the tree-shaped ice cream treats but the chocolate bars she helped make, and it all felt magical.
The years rolled. Her parents died and then her husband. Eventually it was just Fereira and her last living relative, her daughter, living together in the same San Leandro apartment Fereira had been in for decades.
But life was still good, she recalled the other day, because even though she retired long ago and she was now 80 years old, she felt young and happy.
That was in early 2011. Then came the bad times.
Fereira’s daughter, LaVon May Fereira, got cirrhosis of the liver and died in their living room at age 60. That was in August 2011. Fereira took on a roommate, but she was a mismatch, so she took on another. Then, last July, that roommate died too. Right in the upstairs bedroom.
With her only income being Social Security and a small trucker’s pension through her long-dead husband, Fereira couldn’t carry the rent by herself. She fell behind a month – and for the first time in her life the specter of homelessness loomed.
“I prayed for a roommate, I prayed for help, I prayed not to be homeless,” said Fereira, a devout Catholic with about a dozen statues of Mother Mary in her home.
Her prayers’ answers came in August.
First, she was connected with Season of Sharing after calling the Alameda County help line 211 – and there she met case manager Cleopatra Herron, who mustered up the month’s rent to stave off eviction.
That blessing came in the form of Martha Gama, 22 – the daughter of Fereira’s former cleaning woman, Eva Vasquez, whom Fereira told about the room opening. Gama had just been laid off from her photo studio job, was on unemployment benefits and, like Fereira, could no longer afford solo rent.
And the misfortune bit even deeper. Gama’s car, eyeglasses and camera had just been stolen.
“Everything went wrong at once,” she said, sitting in the living room with Fereira. “And then” – and she looked over at Fereira and smiled – “it went right.”
Ray of light
Things only got brighter when Fereira discovered who Gama was bringing with her: 4-year-old daughter Stephany Morgan.
It was like turning on a bright, happy lamp in what had been a household full of worry.
“That little girl and her mother are the best things that have happened to me in a long time,” Fereira said. “I love kids, I love taking care of them. … It’s been so many years since I could do that.”
Stephany ran over to where Fereira sat on the couch and yelled, “Betty! Betty! Play the clapping game!” Fereira – who has long described herself as a “tough cookie” – lit up with the kind of grin that usually only comes with things like Christmas morning.
Sing, play and draw
“Oh, my! Oh ho ho!” she chortled as the two clapped hands together and Stephany hummed an indistinguishable song. After that, there was hide-and-seek. And then it was time to draw pictures.
“Betty – draw a happy face,” Stephany commanded. Fereira nodded. Stephany placed a crayon in Fereira’s wrinkled hand and then, wrapping her own little hand around the bigger one, she drew the outline of head, eyes and a grinning mouth.
“Beautiful,” Fereira murmured.
For dessert that night, they had ice cream.