So…the kids came over yesterday afternoon with their mom bringing Halloween cookies they’d made. There was much hugging and telling of stories. At one point, Connor found a pile of leaves I’d raked and stood there and threw them into the air so they’d fall on him and his sister. His sister got a little annoyed, but not much, and shook them out of her hair.
I was involved in a talk with their mom, so I only watched Connor out of the corner of my eye. Still, I have a clear image of a little boy in a blue jacket tossing yellow leaves toward the sky.
One of the things the kids do in their own yard is run, racing cars that are passing by. Since I live by the highway, cars go faster, but Connor was giving them a good run.
I’ve always been a kid magnet. I was thinking about that last night and I remembered something in an essay by Larry McMurtry in his collection of essays about the West, In a Narrow Grave. He wrote about an uncle he’d had that all the kids followed everywhere. He described him as an adult who, the kids sensed, had never quite grown up. I know that’s true of me. Maybe that’s why I never felt I would be up to the job of actually raising them.
But kids, like musicians, need appreciators too.
Yesterday as I sat down on the stoop in front of my house so I’d be at “kid height,” I was hit by a memory of some other kids, Kaye and Phi. Their parents were Vietnamese refugees. The years were 1988/90. My ex and I were living in our house in the “barrio” which then was largely populated with people who were living in Section 8 housing and people who’d lived on that street for decades. It was a “hood” in transition. The old-timers were white and Mexican. The new-timers were Asian and African American. Over the years, racial gang warfare escalated in in the hood and throughout the city (originating in the hood). But initially, it was pretty calm.
Kaye and Phi were twins, six years old, but Phi had been born with a disability — her legs were crooked and did not grow at the same rate as the rest of her body. Over the years she had surgery to straighten them, but she would always been extremely short. Kaye spent a lot of time at my house. She wanted to assimilate, to belong. She was very bright, and by the time she was seven, was doing a lot of translating for her mother.
I was still missing China and looking at their house (there was one house between our houses and their house faced my front yard) comforted me. Shoes lay outside the front door. Bok Choy dried on strings tied from the side of the house to the back fence. When New Years came, red papers with characters were glued to the sides of the door and a bright red diamond of paper with a door guardian was glued to the door itself. Working in the front yard, I could hear the family talking among them selves, and I loved that. Vietnamese sounds — to me — a lot like Hainanese, the dialect spoken by The Old Mother to her son, my best friends in China. Kaye couldn’t have known this. What she did know was that she was completely welcome at my house and I didn’t find her Vietnameseness in the least alienating.
Every morning the little girls walked to school — a walk that involved going up the street, turning left, walking four blocks to the liquor store, turning left and walking another block. Most of the kids in my hood walked to school. Everyone’s parents worked two or three jobs. How else were the kids going to get there? I am sure at school she experienced ostracism and bullying for being Asian.
Their grandfather lived with them. He had, apparently, experienced something pretty horrific during the Vietnam War. Most of the time he sat calmly outside the front door smoking, but once in a while he lost it completely and would jump up and down yelling, “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” in an inconsolable rage. I thought it was funny, but maybe that was just me. But think about it. It is a pretty funny image. His son would bring him into the house.
Finally the family (by working and working and working) saved enough money to move into a better neighborhood with better schools. Kaye and Phi came to tell me goodbye. I sat on the steps leading to the side door of my garage and we talked. I told them it would be better. That our neighborhood wasn’t very nice and she would have better teachers where she was going (Mira Mesa one of the Asian ghettos of San Diego). Just before she left Kaye gave me a little piece of note paper. On it she’d written,
That note stayed on my refrigerator for years. It reminded me of a really great little girl and that being nice was a good direction to take with people in general. Not a very deep message and yet profound in its simplicity.
P.S. in the photo I’m 36 🙂