Stories

Today, I was telling someone a story, and she said, “You know, you really ought to write this stuff down.” She was probably flattering me. But, really, what else is a blog for except for writing down the stories that I want to share? This morning in the car on the way to preschool, Sophie asked me to explain how banking checks work, and cement mixer trucks, and color-blind people looking at traffic lights. That’s all lots of fun, but just writing down the cutesy questions that Sophie asks and the daily decisions of parenthood is starting to feel trivial. So, here goes, I’m going to try to tell stories. Maybe these are stories for Sophie, for when she gets old enough to understand them.

MY ODD CHILDHOOD

When I was young, my family hosted Ethiopian exchange students. Well, not my own family, exactly: it was my grandparents who did most of the hosting, through American Friends Service Committee, I think. It was one of those Cold War liberal efforts to achieve world peace through shared meatloaf. Some of the exchange students became close friends with my father, and one in particular, Haptamu, kept on visiting us. Haptamu was from Ethiopia. This was the late 70s, just before the big famine in Ethiopia. Haptamu seemed to have the money for trips to the US every few years. He stayed with us in suburban Boston. He stayed at my grandparents’ house in rural Wisconsin, too. He let me eat Ethiopian food with my fingers. And, most memorably, he made me my childhood sandbox.

Haptamu volunteered to make me this sand-box because he was worried that American suburbia had weakened him and it would be embarrassing to return to Ethiopia with such tender feet and lack of strength. So he took off his shoes and hiked across the suburbs of Boston, carrying 50-pound bags of sand on his shoulders, toughening up his bare feet so that he could return to Ethiopia with pride.

It never occurred to me that this is an odd story until I happened to mention it to someone today, as part of an entirely ordinary conversation about toughening up bare feet.

I think it’s part of the oddness of my childhood that it never seemed odd at the time. I thought that every one had a Vietnamese refugee living in their spare room, really, because everyone I knew in the early 80s did. It was the way that the adults at my church tried to do some small thing to ameliorate the huge suffering our country had caused during the Vietnam war. It was a sign of how sheltered I was, that I thought everyone did this — and how privileged, that I thought everyone had a spare room. My family housed a family of 6 Vietnamese boat-people, who lived in our attic for a few months, made me my first spring rolls (temporarily ruining all restaurant spring rolls, for me, because the ones that Mimi cooked were so much better), and then angered my mother by drawing on the walls. As I remember it, they tended to spend long stretches of time simply standing in patches of sunlight in our backyard. I suppose that is what trauma looks like: these people simply standing still, for 20 minutes at a time, faces raised to the cold Boston sun.

By high-school, I recognized that other public-schools seemed to actually take their cheerleaders seriously. I saw that in the movies. In my own town, we tended to mock our cheerleaders or just ignore them. We were proud of our soccer team, not football — and it was more important to us to try to change the world. It’s not that we ignored sports entirely. I myself was on the cross-country team and the rock-climbing team and (for the 3 weeks or so that it existed), the crew team — when I wasn’t working long hours on the school newspaper and running an organization with the now-embarrassing name “Ethos for Equality” that thought we could end racism by talking about it. That was the kind of town I grew up in: liberal, privileged, and almost un-American.

When Sophie gets older, I want to tell her about Haptamu, and Mimi and her family, and all the others who passed through my surprising house, growing up.

And I suppose I should think about why those kinds of people aren’t still passing through my house now, in San Diego.

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2 responses to “Stories

  1. David Henderson

    Elaine. I read your blog all the time. May I ask how your grandparents got involved with the AFSC? The reason I ask is because Heather and I have recently started going to the local Friends meeting.

    • elewinnek

      Hi Dave! I have no idea how my grandparents got involved with AFSC. They weren’t Quakers, I don’t think. My grandfather is actually a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. These grandparents lived in Northern Wisconsin and got involved in organizing the floridation of the water, the construction of the local library, the weekly sky-scanning to check for an aerial Communist invasion over the Canadian border (really, they did that), the Girl Scouts, and the AFSC.

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