When I recall the memories from childhood that taught me something life affirming it’s few and far between. At times this can be difficult since the tougher and more defining moments that shaped me were based around difficulties, but I was a kid at some point. I remember with fondness the days that I chased after my siblings in our giant unevenly cut grass yard or the over-sized willow tree that sat firmly as a testament to my childhood. The tree seemed ancient and yawned sleepily outside my window with vines that had grown to an over abundant degree. The vines were long enough to hide under and I would spend hot days there. It also served as the perfect Tarzan shouting and swinging mechanism. I was a daring kid and was always up to any challenge, including swinging around the tree as many times as I could until the vines either gave way or knotted up. This inevitably hurt but that didn’t mean it wasn’t fun.
You see. I grew up around four boys. An older half brother and three older stepbrothers. I also had an older step sister for a time that moved in with us when she was in highschool, but she mostly spent her time polluting our tiny shared room with Aqua Net hairspray and listening to Guns and Roses.
While it was fun sharing a room with her for a year and being around another girl before she moved out; being seven years old and having someone put thick black eyeliner on you while trying out horrible mid 80’s hairstyles on you was the very definition of chemical hell. Having that many step siblings toughened me up but also gave me a good perspective on living with differences in personality: good or bad.
But one particular memory from my childhood has stayed with me to this day.
Behind this house I grew up in lived an old lonely asian man in a little one story tan house. He was a reserved person but that didn’t stop him from sometimes yelling at us to get off his lawn. His mailbox was on the same road as ours and sometimes I would see him check his mail; but for the most part he kept to himself. Our yards were very close to one another and there was no fence to keep us away from his boundary line. If one were to look at the yard, it would appear as though we shared the same land, but this wasn’t the case. This definitely made it hard to know when we were crossing into his territory but he knew exactly when we were doing it. It was like he had some kind of hidden laser perimeter no one could see with the naked eye. Yet this invisible boundary line was constantly exploited by my older brothers and their mischief. They were troublemakers and I would find myself following suit out of curiosity or trying to be a part of their little club.
Sure, this often meant I would get in unnecessary trouble at times, but it was important to me that I prove to them I could go the mile. Looking back on it now, it was silly, but I was only a kid. We all do strange things as children. More than likely I was envious of the sweet orange flags they had on the back of their bikes that brandished their names. I do remember begging one year to get one on my birthday for my bike but I think somewhere in my mom’s head she heard me begging for the most annoying bike horn in the world. It was a very depressing and sad bike horn too, but that didn’t stop me from using it to my advantage. It was so screechingly loud that I would squeeze it when I followed my brothers and they tried to leave me behind; they cringed and screamed at me every time as they tried to get rid of me. It was a small victory against their bullying, but a victory nonetheless. What can I say, it soothed my disregarded feelings at the time.
Anyway, one day my brothers got it in their heads that they would jump off the small tool shed on our unsuspecting neighbor's lawn and into an old splayed out stack of hay mixed with dead leaves beneath the shed’s awning. I knew it was a bad idea but trying to stop them meant getting tickled till I cried or suffer being punched, so I just followed along to avoid the punishment.
I watched in awe as they climbed up one after the other on the side of the shed effortlessly. I was a very small petite child. To me, the shed seemed like a skyscraper. I remember a light rain starting and looking up as the sky mirrored my dissatisfaction of being afraid to join in. I judged the situation and wasn’t sure if I’d be able to make the climb or the jump. A part of me knew I would more than likely be fine but my courage faltered as they repeated the cycle a few times as they taunted me.
“Come on. I dare you.”
“She can’t do it, she’s too chicken.”
“Yeah, it’s too high for a girl.”
They jumped off the tin roof like monkeys that had been freed from a zoo.
Through frustration and blushing cheeks, I gathered up my fear and clamored up the side of the shed. I was paranoid of getting caught but I was also determined to show them I could make the jump. That’s the law of daring someone, you can’t back down, everyone knows that.
Dread filled me. They gathered together at the bottom of the shed, looking up at me from their semi-circle of judgement. They laughed and taunted me to jump quickly before I got caught. Slowly I crept towards to the edge and looked down as the light sprinkle quickly turned to rain. I knew that if I didn’t jump off, I’d be stuck up there and I was already afraid of slipping on the watery surface.
“I can do this! Easy!” I shouted down at them in defiance.
I finally made the choice despite the fact I might end up with a sprained ankle or some other crazy injury I could dream up.
I closed my eyes and did a running jump as a chimp-like scream left my mouth when I landed safely but flat on my butt below in the pile of hay and leaves. I laid there in pride and I filled the air with laughter and a satisfied smile from cheek to cheek; but when I looked up to gain approval, my brothers were running away into the back door of our house. I noticed the looming shadow of a man standing over me from behind; his hands sat on his hips disapprovingly.
“Excuse me little miss. What are you doing on my shed and in my yard?” I got a closer look and recognized it as the old Asian man.
He stared down at me through wide square glasses and a disapproving frown. I froze in terror since the last thing I wanted was to get in trouble again. Our household was strict and I feared the repercussions. As I thought of the punishment, I fought back the tears as he put his hand out to help me up. I wondered what would happen if I just ran but I was too scared and my feet failed me. I knew I would face harsh punishment now or be stuck in my room for a very long time.
“Come on. We’re going to go have a discussion with your parents about this.”
I hid in shame behind him and ran past as we approached our front door and he knocked. I looked up at him as I opened the door and ran inside past my mother who answered instantly. I expected to meet my brothers but it appeared they left me to take the full blame for what had transpired moments earlier.
“Hello Miss. I found your daughter jumping off my shed into a barrel of hay. I’m not sure if she’s hurt but I will ask for her to stay out of my yard.”
“She was doing what?” My mother looked back at me with a red face. I was definitely in trouble now, “Sit down and don’t move.”
They engaged in conversation as I sat on the floor awaiting my fate. I figured the punishment would be swift but deadly.
After a few minutes my mother approached and made me apologize for my transgression. I walked cautiously over to him.
He bent down and I saw the kindest smile and eyes I’d ever seen,
“That’s alright but your mother and I have worked out that you will come over to my house next week and help me clean my kitchen to make up for it.”
Part of me was nervous and didn’t understand what was going on as I looked back at my mom who nodded in approval, her eyes downcast at me.
“I’ll take you over there and you can help him clean up after school. What were you thinking?”
“It wasn’t just me I-”
“No arguing with me.” She cut me off.
I didn’t feel comfortable with a stranger but I had no choice, even though I knew my brothers should be helping out with this I took the blame despite it. I remember dreading it after the weekend was over and kept looking over at his house from our living room glass door. My brothers teased me that he was probably some kind of murderer that was going to throw me into the very shed I got in trouble for jumping off of. While I was an adventurous kid on the outside, I’ve always been an idealist and this moment is what helped shaped my idealism.
All that week and everyday after getting home from school, I went to this old strange man's house and did his dishes, swept the kitchen floor, sometimes vacuumed, and dusted his living room. At first I was so nervous that I almost ran out but he changed my mind after something he said only minutes after I arrived and my mother left angrily.
“Hello. You know, I noticed that your brothers were jumping off my shed too. It was rude of them not to take the blame as well but you do know that you don’t need to impress them. You know that right? You just need to be yourself, that’s more than enough.” He handed me a lollipop and sent me on my way that day.
After every cleaning session finished, he would give me some of his words of wisdom or would talk about the family he loved dearly. A lollipop was soon to follow. What became a fearful experience had become a lesson and a blessing in disguise. It also presented me with the opportunity to skip home across the yard with a piece of candy that my brothers would look at with envy as their mouths drooled. It was a delicious justice. A sugary sweet juicy justice. When I think about it, it was probably the best punishment I’d ever received.
I don’t remember much else about him, I can’t even recall his name now. I do remember the numerous faded pictures of him with his children and grandchildren on the walls. But one picture was special to him over all the rest.
This picture sat alone on the center of an oak shelf in the living room. I could tell right away it was a picture of him as a young man in locked arms with a homely looking yet intelligent young Asian woman. There was dedication in his voice when he spoke of her as I cleaned that specific picture frame. She was long since deceased. I finally understood why he was so alone and felt guilt for all the times I was scared of him or my brothers made fun of him. I think I had been the only company he’d had in a very long time.
I’ll never forget the old man next door. Every now and again I would wave at him as I rode my bike by his house, even honking my annoying horn which seemed to make him laugh. Sometimes he’d give me another lollipop. The last few years I lived in that house I dreamt that he had a closet full of lollipops that I raided as a pirate. It was The Holy Grail of Tootsie Roll Pops.
I’m sure he’s gone by now but I will never forget the time that I was imparted life wisdom from a stranger like that. It was worth every second that I suffered that sore tailbone and unnecessary sweeping of his already clean floor. It may have encouraged me to buy a horn for a bike I used to own when I was much older.