The wooden bench in the hallway, between the pot-bellied stove and the hanging ivy in a macramé plant holder, that was where I learned to love. With my skinny legs dangling almost to the worn linoleum and my green eyes hung down to avoid Mrs. Young, I studied the brown and orange geometric lines on the floor beneath my dirty tennies with intensity. I had picked out the shoes myself from the rack at Value Village in Tucson and now they were squeezing my toes and maybe my heart. Mrs. Young had placed me there on the bench and I burned with shame.
Despite my anxious discomfort, this house was warm and safe, and the place to learn about how normal people do life. Like a plant engaged in phototropism, I found a light source and turned to it for survival.
I was there for church, a house-church in my desert village, planted in that southeast corner of Arizona by Providence for my sustenance. I think now of Deuteronomy 8:15. “He led you through the vast and dreadful desert, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock.” This place was my water.
Strings of memories wrap around this place like a large ball of twine, strong enough to tie a young sapling to a stake to steady it in the wind. Holy words were said there, pudgy old ladies in flowered dresses and bloated ankles served potluck meals, and I heard laughter. I cherished a few special sanctuaries as a child, the leafy branches of the poplar tree in my own yard, the flat roof top of our shed, and here too in this place, the swing in the side yard where I’d tuck my feet up under me to get away from the chickens or where I’d lazily rock and pretend I lived there.
And there was Mrs. Young in front of me, the best mother I knew, her brown hair in a bun with gray wisps falling near her porcelain face. She and Mr. Young owned the general store about five miles down the dirt roads that criss-crossed the clay and dust, grasses and tumbleweeds, and sometimes I’d walk all the way there just to buy a Baby Ruth. A small group of girls, including myself, and a little Korean girl named Kim wearing the prettiest clothes of all and shiny black patent leather shoes, we’d all been playing after Sunday-School.
And why, I don’t quite know, because I was the least of them all and thought so little of myself, but I had been terribly offensive that day, and perhaps I’d fallen victim to that psychology of only liking what is “similar to me,” and in fact in my tiny homogeneous community I’d never known anyone before who wasn’t white like me.
“You are not being very nice, young lady!” Mrs. Young had seen it all, heard the words, noticed the hurt, and pulled me aside there to the bench. I was ablaze with honest shame because it was all so dreadfully true. I wasn’t nice, and I didn’t like her daughter, and I had actually said to the brown girl, “you can’t play with us.”
The best mother stood over me and spoke to me privately about her daughter, an adopted Korean girl with impossibly thick black hair, smooth brown skin, and small dark eyes that held all of Seoul. Mrs. Young told me where her Kim came from, that she was just like me, and though very few words were said, something in her voice seared my soul about the dignity of each human life. She asked me to apologize.
I embraced that other little brown girl. She soon, almost instantly, became my first best friend, a treasure. I spent many nights at her house, and we were just two little girls with dreams, and we’d give each other a head massage as we sleepily talked about the possibilities out there in the great big world. She wanted to be a gymnast. I thought the circus sounded fun. We ate spicy kimchi at her house and dressed up in kimonos. Mrs. Young told me how much Kim wished for hair like mine, and I told my sisters I wanted to be Korean.
If you never have a best friend you can’t learn about things like keeping secrets, writing notes with bubble letters and hearts, sharing those silly glances when you have a crush. You learn that girlhood is universal no matter what your race or religion or social status. Sometimes you get hurt, too, like the time in 7th grade when I moved away for a year and after I came back, Kim had a new best friend. Things were not the same, and a year later, Kim moved away to California.
But I thank God for Mrs. Young and that holy bench, and this lesson in love.
Beloved, let us love another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. I John 4:7
(to be continued)