Father left when I was two years old and Mother remarried Stepdad. He was already married though, to his first wife. In the Hmong culture, Mother was his lower wife. We all lived under the same roof for some time. To me, those times were hazy summer afternoons spent in the backyard of the yellow Menasha duplex with my siblings. When the ice cream truck rolled by with its irresistible music, we ran as fast as we could to Stepdad in hopes he had some loose change to spare. If we were lucky that particular afternoon, we scored an ice cream shaped like Bugs Bunny with black gumball eyes. My siblings and I passed it around so everyone had a taste and then washed our sticky hands with the green garden hose that coiled all around the yard. Our backyard was huge and flanked on both sides by our neighbor’s fence-less lawn. At the back end there was a wire barrier about 6 feet tall blocking anyone from crossing onto the edge of the construction pit. Even still, we ventured over via a wire cut hole. At the bottom of the pit were hefty yellow bulldozers and dirty dump trucks. Excavators were scattered all over the perimeters of the site. My brothers loved it but I did not. I was afraid of heights but tagged along anyway. Mother took a picture of us kids back there once. We stood in a line; tan faced and wide eyed posing patiently. Ferns were wild and the grass was tall, reaching up to our waists. That was how my little sister became allergic to the red berry bushes in our backyard. Mother used to put tiger balm on it to soothe the hot rashes my little sister would get after long hours of playing outside. The next day, we were right back at it again and in the evening my mother would once again apply that menthol ointment to my sister’s arms and legs. It was a continuous cycle of horse play, adventure and pay-for-it-later’s.
We lived in a very quiet neighborhood even though our school was just down the street. We walked there every morning, rain or shine. My mother watched until she saw that we were in the school yard with the other kids. I remember being indifferent about school although I did love my 1st grade teacher Mrs. Meshnick. One day she said it was time to rearrange our assigned seats. She instructed all of us to move our desks into a big circle. She chose me to go first so I pushed my desk to the middle.
“Who would you like to sit next to you?” I looked around nervously but I knew exactly who I was going to choose. His name was Shawn and I liked him very much but was too shy to call his name out. Mrs. Meshnick asked the class if anyone wanted to sit next to me. A couple kids raised their hands but not Shawn. So I pointed my finger right at him.
“Shawn, would you like to sit next to Dee?” He shook his head no and I started crying. Needless to say, for one month, I got to sit right next to him.
In second grade my favorite subjects were English and reading and sometimes when I was in the mood, I liked German class too. Mrs. Bauman was a nice teacher. When it was time to learn German, she would knock on the classroom door, poke her head in, wave and call out “Guten tag!” My primary teacher, Mrs. Thompson, stopped teaching, welcomed Mrs. Bauman in and retreated to sit at her own desk. For one hour, Mrs. Bauman took over and taught German. First she pushed her cart full of supplies in through the door and parked it in front of the chalk board. Then she dug into a red bucket full of fabric and out popped a hand puppet with stringy yellow hair which she named Leonard, Leo for short. “Guten tag!” She would call out again, this time with a funny voice.
The whole class answered back, “Guten tag, Leo!”
“Wie geht es dir?” said the funny voice. A couple kids answered “Gut!”, and a few more answered incorrectly, “Danke!” She gathered the kids into a circle and perched Leo right on her knee.
“Let’s go around and introduce ourselves by saying our names! I’ll go first! Hallo, ich bin Mrs. Bauman.”
“Hallo, ich bin Leo!” chimed the puppet. Then each kid would follow with their version of “Ich bin,” And Mrs. Bauman would cheer, “Gut gemacht! Good job!” And when it came to me, I never said anything. I was so shy of speaking in front of others that it was actually a problem. My preschool teacher thought I was a mute at one point and often spoke to my mother about her concerns. My frustrated mother would yell at me later at home when she caught me fighting with my siblings. “Why are you so loud at home but never open your mouth at school?”
Mrs. Bauman was patient though. She never pressured me or made me feel stupid. Every day she encouraged me; when I uttered nothing she would say, “We’ll come back to you ok, Dee?” I just stared at her as she smiled back with her eyes. Funny though because she never did come back to me. We just started all over the next day.
It must’ve been a very good day when I finally said something. Maybe I felt extra brave or maybe Shawn waved at me that morning. I’m unsure. But when it finally got around to me and Leo called out “Guten tag, wie heibt du?” I replied softly, “Hello.” Everyone turned to look at me, unbelieving. I didn’t cry but I remembered my cheeks getting really hot.
“Yay!” Mrs. Bauman cheered. Even Mrs. Thompson clapped for me. That night I showed my mom the sticker on my sleeve I received at the end of German class that read in bright yellow and pink letters, “Gut Gemacht!”
“What does that say?”
I shrugged and replied, “I don’t know.”
Time can be blurred together when you’re a child. But sometimes, a memory can stick out like a sore thumb. Every week in 3rd grade, my teacher gathered us at the stuffed animal corner and read us a couple pages from the book “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” I don’t remember the story at all but I will never forget the day she brought lemon drops. She said, in this part of the book, she wanted to share a very special treat with us. She took from her purse a plastic bag full of yellow bonbons dusted with tiny sugar crystals. My mouth was basically salivating at the anticipation of how this new candy would taste like. For 15 minutes she read from the book. For 15 minutes I stared at the bag of sunny sweets imagining in every aspect just how it would taste when I could finally plop it on my tongue and let the sugar melt into a syrupy delight. Finally the moment came when my teacher closed the book and told everyone to hold out their hands. I sat patiently in what we called a pretzel leg, practically drooling all over my shirt. Reaching out like an anxious Oliver Twist asking for more, my teacher placed a single yellow confection into the palm of my hands. At long last I placed the lemon drop into my mouth. It was as sweet as I had hoped, like honey on banana pancakes. I was as happy as a newborn chick. That was until I saw my classmates’ faces turn from pure elation to looks of panicked terror in the span of .7 seconds. I, too, would join them in their lip-puckering demise. I can say that I do eat lemon drops today but the 8 year old me would’ve ran away like Harry from Cerberus.
I learned to ride a bike as any normal eight year old might; with training wheels. One day Stepdad came home with a truckload of used bikes he got from a garage sale. There were three pink ones with glittery stickers and then there were two blue-green bikes. And at the bottom of the truck bed was a scooter; basically a shin-busting skateboard with handles. Now there were six very anxious kids waiting to learn biking and a school playground down the street calling their names, so this is a math problem that wouldn’t take a genius to figure out. My sister was the oldest and it was only right she would get the biggest pink bike. And there were two blue-green bikes that the rest of us girls naturally disliked. That left two pink bikes for the three of us girls. My sisters may have been young but we could figure things out and one thing we’d figure out for a long time was that Stepdad favored my stepsister over the rest of us. She was the firstborn and only child from his first wife. She had light hair, much lighter than our raven black hair. She also had light skin and a fragile figure. They named her Yayoua; white peacock. We didn’t think anything much that Stepdad favored her more because frankly, we liked her a lot too. We saw it as normal. This only meant one pink bike would go to her. My little sister and I decided we could always share the last pink bike but being the older one, I let her ride it when we wanted to go down to the school playground. That summer, I did learn how to bike without training wheels. But I also learned to Band-Aid bruised shins too.
Let me tell you about my siblings as I remembered them when we were young. First there was Mai. She is the oldest and self-proclaimed wisest. Her wavy hair was always parted down the middle into a low ponytail so she looked prim and proper even when we had played outside for hours. Mother called her Owl because she had big eyes. Then there is Pardra who is two years younger than me. She slept anywhere and everywhere and has dimples on her cheeks so she has a very cute smile. She also had very thick blunt bangs all the way down to her eyes and every time you talked to her she would tilt her head back to see you through her bangs. She was both annoying and adorable. My younger brothers followed. Kee loved eating and Chue was mischievous. My older cousins adored them and dubbed them Chubby and Puppy, the inseparable brothers. I’ve grown to love my half-brothers very much. They went through a difficult time during Stepdad and Mother’s divorce. I’m thankful every day I still got to witness them grow up into teenagers and then adults. They will always be my unsuspecting rock, the glue between two broken families.