bioStories Blog is an extension of the online magazine bioStories: Essays from the magazine, news, updates on contributors, and other features appear here.

Saturday, April 23, 2016


by Jean Berrett

The walls had always hung heavy with pictures, gilt‑framed, dark and dimming, holding fiercely onto what was already lost. Old pictures of Baltimore, the streets of cobblestone and white scrubbed concrete steps in front of the row houses like nuns waiting for supper.

In some of the photos, the people stood tall in front of cardboard cutouts of mountains and lakes, infinite shades of gray. The women in corsets that propped their bosoms high up under their collarbones and the men in wide lapels with hats tipped at a devil‑may‑care angle. The photographed children looked unhappy, smiles forced over frowns or whimpers, little girls in dresses flounced and laced, row upon row, and little boys standing straight as infantry.

In one of the largest frames was a drawing of a stone cathedral, medieval‑style: two massive, ornately sculpted towers, a huge rose window in the columned belfry and three high arches that pointed to God, each topped with its bleeding stone crucified Christ above the three stone entranceways.

Her husband had left her for another woman twenty‑five years younger than both of them. In the long year following divorce, those pictures still hung from the rosy wall‑papered walls, gray and gilded and moldering green. One day I remarked that her house still looked like a parsonage (the husband had been a minister). Two days later, when I stopped by, the walls were almost bare. Where the pictures had been, pale squares and rectangles on the faded clustering roses marked their absences.

All the pictures were gone but one, a two foot by three foot lithograph in a carved oak frame, which surrounded an inner frame of tarnished metal crosshatched in gold and black. Under the aged glass of the frame was Uncle Joe, half‑bald with a thick but neatly‑trimmed mustache curling over his upper lip and around the corners of his unsmiling mouth. Everything, even his white man's face, had faded to shades of tepid brown. He too wore a wide lapelled suit and a stiff white shirt with the collar pressed down around a small triangular cravat. The look on his face not sad but intent, as if he studied the scene before him and seemed to be saying to all who looked, "You whose hearts still beat, whose blood pumps into your brains and behind your eyes so that you can see what I cannot, you, who believe somehow that I watch your strange, strange lives from behind these ink‑print eyes. I am bones at most by now, my dear. But you know, I lived. My blood too pumped through muscles and brain and limbs as my own inconceivably magic heart did its inexplicable dance for a while.” Almost a kindness in Uncle Joe's eyes. His picture remained alone on the walls.

The following week, new pictures hung across from Uncle Joe. Pictures which she herself had painted during those long years of marriage. Pictures selected from those kept hidden behind an ancient wood desk, canvases unframed and stuffed in a narrow slot against that wall where bookshelves filled with heavy books hung above and all the way down on both sides.

A painting of a turtle's face peeking out from under a yellow and orange and green‑streaked shell. Black eyes, one almost round and open, the other one angular, half‑closed. Two small dark holes at the snout on a face where soft‑blended reds and blues and violets made a mixing of sundown above the animal's two front claws. The fine‑brushed outline of those claws was filled with tiny trapezoids of brown and orange and yellow and white. Most amazing was the turtle's mouth, a line crossing the face from side to side. At the center, the line lifted slightly and wavered—a warily hopeful smile.

Above the turtle were two other canvases, both of them paintings of luminous crabs. Viewed from the top, the shells on their backs were shaded and stroked with dark and light greens and dark and light blues. The eyes protruded bright, bright red under an arc of red and blue and lavender claws balanced on the other side of the shell with orange and green and lavender flippers. The sand behind stunned to pink and orange by the sunlight that must have fallen that day on the moon‑loving tides of the Chesapeake.

Hung on a diagonal from Uncle Joe was a close‑up painting, a side view of the large blue head of a blue‑eyed bird, its orange beak open as if in song. It was thick with feathers that seemed to have burst that very moment from neck and head, and the white ring around the bright blue eye grew a luxurious circle of lashes. Out of the top of the feathery head poked three small heads of hungry nestlings with wide open mouths that had to be fed.

Three full‑grown children came that night to have dinner with their mother.

Jean Berrett has been publishing poetry since 1973, after she took the first graduate Creative Writing-Poetry course to be offered by University of Wisconsin-Madison. The instructor told her that he thought she was the best poet in the class and encouraged her to begin submitting her poems or stories to magazines. She obtained her MFA in Creative Writing from Eastern Washington University and taught English at College of Menomonee Nation in Wisconsin. Since she first started sharing her work professionally, she has published ninety-two poems. Other publications include translations from Virgil and Lucretius and stories and book reviews. She has two sons and seven grandchildren.

Friday, April 8, 2016


by Susan Moldaw

          My father was proud to be the patriarch of our family of four—my mother, my sister, and myself. When he was eighty and his cancer was diagnosed, it was a surprise, though I knew he would beat it.
          I sometimes drove him to the cancer center for treatments. He always walked in, unlike other patients, who came by wheelchair.
          One day, nine months after his diagnosis, my father finally requested a wheelchair when we got to the hospital. That morning, he asked his radiation oncologist how much longer he would live. “Five years?” he asked. Reluctantly, the oncologist said that his cancer was fatal, and would probably kill him within the year. My father’s face fell. I felt my heart drop, seeing his disappointment. Besides—my father was invincible. He couldn’t die. The oncologist didn’t say what the primary cancer doctor gently told me, later, in the brightly lit hallway outside the examining room—that my father had only a few months. Her compassion let loose my fear and sadness. My eyes widened; tears pooled. She gave me a heartfelt hug.
The author and her father
My father and I slowly drove home. Neither of us spoke. He winced with every bump in the road. After I helped him out of the car and we walked what felt like an interminable distance to the front door, he put his arm around my shoulder. I felt his arm’s weight and the welcome burden of his need as I helped him navigate the threshold, cross the hall, and get into bed. That was the first time, and the last, that he ever leaned on me. When I was young—and older too—I’d leaned on him, and wept—at times—into his kind, capacious chest.

Susan Moldaw works as a chaplain in San Francisco. Her writing has appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, Lilith, Literary Mama, Narrative, and other publications.

Thursday, March 31, 2016


by Jason Bruner

It isn’t that faith doesn’t exist for me now; it’s just that most of it was left behind in the places I tried to take it.  

By age ten, my select cadre of heroes was decidedly masculine and eclectic: Ponch and Jon from “CHiPs”, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo from Star Wars, Dale Murphy of the Atlanta Braves, and Jim Elliot, an American missionary who was killed in a South American rain forest. I was so struck by the story of Jim Elliot that I wrote a fifth grade book report on a devotional account of his short life. I opened my report with a quotation evocative enough to lodge itself firmly in my young psyche: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” I admired, even envied, his clarity and conviction.

Jim Elliot, a Wheaton graduate with the distinctive wholesomeness of mid-century Americana, traveled to the Ecuadorian jungle in the mid-1950s, along with four other young white evangelical missionaries. One of them, a prodigious pilot, managed to land a plane on the sandy bank of a meandering river in an attempt to reach the “Auca Indians” (most modern anthropologists refer to them as the Huaorani). Shortly after landing, they were stabbed with spears, making Elliot in particular a household name among American evangelicals. Not technically a saint, Elliot came as close as we had to sainthood and was welcomed into the pantheon of White Missionary Heroes.

The White Missionary Hero had to forego the comforts of Western civilization and brave the forces of darkness in order to bring dark-skinned people the Word of God. This was the duty of the true Christian—the one who was really “on fire”: to sacrifice his life to bring light to the darkness. This was a faith and a masculinity defined by atonement, measured by sacrifice. Dating, sports, and “secular” music were steps along the way to being speared in a jungle.  

I could be that bold. Or, at least, I should. I would give it a shot.  

Gabi was 7 and lived in a Mexican border town. She was smart and somehow quietly effusive and, as I was soon to discover, creative. I’d come with a church group to bring the Good News to Mexico, but I’d run out of things to say, and my silence reflected just how little I knew of her world.

Gabi was frequently by my side for the few days we were there, even when we had nothing to talk about. We sat on a rough pew that wobbled on an uneven concrete floor. To break the uncomfortable silence, I asked Gabi about her favorite Bible story. We were leading a Vacation Bible School program at the church in her barrio, after all. 

She paused for a few seconds and then launched into an animated telling of her favorite parable: “Habia una vez…” (Once upon a time…)

She had different voices ready for each of the characters, which changed with her posture as the drama unfolded. I got a little lost, more because of my limited horizons than the storyteller’s skill.

As a teenager, I had a pretty encyclical knowledge of the Bible, but I was having trouble placing this one. She was talking a lot about animals. Noah and the flood? I kept hearing tortuga. And conejo. They were … racing? And the conejo was … having lunch with a friend?

To this day, Gabi gave what is easily the best telling of the tortoise and the hare that I’ve ever heard.

Well, she is probably from a Catholic family, I thought at the time. I bet they don’t even read the Bible.

A few years later, I sat on the makeshift second deck of a motorized canoe, floating in the middle of the Milky Way. The Amazon was so wide and still that the white heavenly dust stopped only briefly at the thin forest horizon before circling back underneath us to be churned up by the outboard motor. This ring lit our way hour after hour after hour.

We were a few days’ travel from electricity, and our tiny engine was determined to push us through the humid darkness that kept everything else in its place. As missionaries, we came to tell these people how to get out of the darkness—from the things that held them there—and move into the light.

We had no idea where we were.

Back in Georgia, our mission had been clear. We felt a calling to be missionaries, a calling to the Amazon. We were placed with a team and sent through training where we learned trust falls and how to walk through obstacle courses when muddy. One of the leaders, a preacher, with his impassioned face clay-red, went hoarse yelling about how, as Christians, we needed to be like “a big Nalgene water bottle that splashed water on everyone when it was shaken.” The love of Jesus sprinkled upon the heathens.

They said that the Amazon would be an adventure in testing our faith. An adventure in bringing light to a dark place.

Or, maybe, just an adventure.

The thin canopy of the horizon grew thicker as the black Amazonian lake slowly narrowed itself into a serpentine tributary, the jungle increasingly interrupting the starry ring.

“Get your bags together. We’re almost there,” called a voice near the motor. We brought a lot of stuff.

I looked up as we came around a final bend in the river and saw a new light, then another, then a whole line of lights, flickering along the river. Not the clear white of the Milky Way but the soft dancing yellow of candles in glassless windows, moving with the silent current, welcoming the Americanos.

As I watched the candlelit shore, I drank from my Nalgene bottle, filled with iodine-infused river water. What did I really have to “shake out” onto these people—the Uraina? I had nothing to bring. Light was already here, reflected in the quiet, eternal darkness of their own water.

I realized they didn’t need a white missionary hero. The sacrifices I’d made—adopting a new diet, enduring the heat, braving the piranhas—only measured my faith; they didn’t impart it. So I went home to Georgia.

I stood at the northwest corner of the city square in Matamoros, Mexico on Wednesday afternoon, August 4th, 2004. There was a single trashcan and a couple of benches, and that’s exactly where I left it behind: the wooden popsicle stick from the ice cream bar I had just finished, along with faith, evangelicalism, whatever else that I’d been tentatively hanging on to. But I had known this was coming.

Six weeks prior, I arrived at a mission camp in northern Mexico, a base for American evangelical youth groups to have week-long mission trips.

My first morning in Mexico, I stood at the back of the short worship and prayer service with some of the adult chaperones. The worship leader asked everyone to pair up and pray for the other person. Next to me stood a pastor from one of the church groups. We introduced ourselves and began our generic intercessions. The worship leader called for everyone’s attention, but my prayer partner had something he needed to tell me: “This hasn’t really ever happened before, but I had a vision while we were praying.”


“You were in a tractor, out in a big field. You were doing work, driving the tractor through crops. But it was like there was just a wagon attached to the tractor. It was the wrong thing. So nothing was happening. You were working but with the wrong tools. I don’t know you. I don’t know what it means, but I thought I should tell you.”
I puzzled over the prophetic riddle as I watched the sunburnt Christian soldiers load into worn fifteen-passenger vans, which then funneled into a clunky convoy that dispatched them to their ministry sites: orphanages, churches, soccer fields. My prophet and his group left the next day. This schedule would become my rhythm for the six weeks that followed, minus additional personal prophecies.

The Mexican border town—its poverty, heat, dust, hope, and desperation—had made him want to be more like Jesus. And that was the problem.

I watched as mud dripped off her face and onto her shirt—stains of a misguided act of faith. Her: the Mexican woman who had trouble seeing. Cataracts, probably. Her need inspired him to act. Him: an American youth pastor.

Because one time Jesus saw a blind man and made mud and smeared it on the blind man’s eyes and he could see. It was a divinely-proven formula, scientific in a way. Of course, he didn’t have the saliva of the God-Man, which was an ingredient in the biblical precedent. We mumbled prayers as he made do with a decent substitute: the purified water in his bottle. He prayed and smeared the mud over her blurred vision. He prayed again. Rinsed it off—only the mud, not the cataracts. The mud dripped onto her white blouse. We watched disappointment wash over them both, though for different reasons. His miracle was deferred; her laundry wouldn’t be.

The poverty, the desperation, the heat—they make it hard to think straight. The youth minister was bewildered. He really had expected a different outcome, and he was now left with the task of locating where the formula broke down. Was it his insufficient faith? Hers?

I don’t know if he ever considered that the problem was the premise of the encounter itself—the certainty of our goodness, of our helpfulness, of our beneficence. 

By the end of my time in Mexico, the square in Matamoros was one of my favorite places to visit. It had abundant shade that beckoned folks to relax and rest, making it an ideal target for visiting evangelicals looking to share the Good News.

Our small group of adults broke into pairs, each with a translator, and planned to reconvene at the northwest corner of the square in ninety minutes. I went to the ice cream shop on the west side of the square, then struck up a conversation with a man whose perceptive critiques of American religion and foreign policy eventually surpassed my ability to keep up. Both of us were frustrated: me for reaching the limits of my linguistic capabilities, him for the obstinacy of yet another gringo who was defending things he didn’t understand.

The pairs of gringos returned to the corner. I asked one man what he’d done. With the confident calculus of an evangelical abroad, he responded: “We got five and it looks like that group’s working on three. How many did y’all get?”

“Zero,” I responded, and realized I was proud of it.

So I unhitched my wagon on the northwest corner of the Matamoros city square and went home.

I never told Gabi that her story wasn’t from the Bible. Maybe she knew and was testing me—the guy who thought he knew enough to spend a week parsing right from wrong in a Mexican border town he couldn’t even find on a map. Maybe she just had a more inclusive canon.  

So I sat there, not knowing how to respond to the tale of the tortoise and the hare. Thankfully, she simply returned the question I had originally asked her. I couldn’t think of the Spanish word for “prodigal,” so I just went straight into the story, which my mediocre Spanish only allowed me to tell in a faltering present tense: “There is a father who has two sons. One son says to his father, ‘I want my all money.’ The father it gives to him and son leaves. The son goes to a country really far and now has no money and is very poor. He thinks about his house and his father. He says, ‘I go to my father because there I have food.’ The father sees his son and says, ‘This is my son. We have a party.’”  

All of the characters had the same voice in my version—a distinctly American voice. Gabi was intrigued and confused, but certainly not entertained, much less transformed. So I tried to drive home the point: “God is the father and we leave and do sins. But God loves us.” She preferred her story, perhaps realizing that I had told mine more for my sake than hers.

Jim Elliot had gone to a far country. I imagine his father thought of his son’s missionary career in Ecuador as a sacrifice, even before he was killed. It was too far off for his father to see him again—at least for a long time. But there would be no return. His son’s blood was spilled into a remote Ecuadorian river not so different than the thin Amazonian tributary I puttered up in a motorized canoe many decades later.

But after floating in that same beautiful darkness, mine isn’t the heroic line of the sacrifice. Mine is the defeated arc of the prodigal. Somewhere between northern Mexican border towns and the Peruvian Amazon lie the certainty and clarity that propelled me to the far country in the first place. Sometimes, the better news is that the tortoise wins. Sometimes, our water only gets other people dirty. Sometimes, the darkness is more beautiful than the lights we carried. Because, you see, the prodigal loses it all—the things he brought, perhaps even his faith—but he holds onto his life. That’s the difference between sacrifices and prodigals: prodigals come home.

Jason Bruner is an assistant professor on the religious studies faculty at Arizona State University in Tempe, where he lives with his wife, daughter, and cat. He has published scholarly articles on Christian missions, British imperialism, and the history of Christianity in East Africa. His writing has also appeared in Religion & PoliticsMarginalia Review of BooksReligion Dispatches, and Notches: (Re)marks on the History of Sexuality.

Monday, March 21, 2016


by Bari Benjamin

She smiles when she sees me and her skin stretches tightly over her mouth and chin. Her cheekbones and collar bones jut out, sharp and pointy. I sit by her hospital bed, trying to understand what has happened to my seventy-two-year older sister. Just three weeks ago, we spoke on the phone. She asked about my daughter. “You’ve done everything possible for this child.” And I knew she meant it.

She was twelve and I was five, an annoying younger sister who adored her. One day she taught me to ride my big girl bike. We inched down the cobblestone road when zoom—she let go of the seat and I sped off. My hair flew in my face; my hands clenched the handle bars, my knuckles big and white. My eyes stared wide open.
But the next day she hated me. Often she scared me; she looked like a witch, skinny with long fingernails and straggly, thin hair. We played outside one day, when she hid behind the side of our house. “Boo,” she yelled as she wrapped her gnarled fingers around my neck and squeezed. Hard. She tortured me. “Eat, eat more. Eat for me,” she said, as she pushed food in my face. It didn’t matter what—candy, bread, doughnuts, fruit, whatever was in the fridge.
I became the focus of her rage. Not only did she desperately control what she put in her mouth, she controlled my diet as well. And so it went, I struggled with my sister’s intense emotions, and my mother struggled to keep peace. Her illness divided my parents: My mother protected my sister and my father defended me. “Mommy, please, “I cried, “I don’t want any more to eat. I’m stuffed. I don’t wanna throw up. Help me.”
“Leave her alone,” my father yelled, again and again.
Madeline and Bari
Soon my sister’s condition became critical (she was five feet seven inches and weighed sixty-five pounds) and she was hospitalized for many months. (I believe she had the distinctive honor of being the first patient with this kind of eating disorder in Pittsburgh.) I was promptly sent to live with my grandmother in Florida for a solid year. I begged, “Mommy, please don’t make me go, I’ll be good I’ll be good I’ll be good.”
A year away from my family at the age of five fractured my vulnerable sense of security. But my sister got better. She stopped starving herself and stopped scaring me. There was peace in our home but we remained distant, and it wasn’t until our adult years that we gradually grew closer. Our daughters provided a bond, a safe island upon which to connect. She embraced the role of big sister, advised and comforted me when my daughter’s troubles emerged. Did she have a special understanding of how wounded a child can be when they feel utterly helpless? When they have so little control over their lives?
At six months old, my daughter had been left in a carriage in a train station in Moscow. Sometimes I imagine her crying and crying, her baby face scrunched up with rage, her terror at not seeing her mama’s familiar face. Police rescued her and placed her in one of the city’s twenty-five orphanages. And then at age two, she was flown halfway across the world with another unfamiliar face. My sister, the experienced parent, helped me navigate those early years.
“She won’t make eye contact with me. That’s not normal. What should I do?”
“Don’t worry,” she soothed me. “It’s a temporary delay. Sit with her, rock her, hold her.”
But then, adolescence exploded like a series of firecrackers. I bore the brunt of her rage. “I hate you, you bitch,” she’d scream, as she stormed out the door.
My sister didn’t experience that kind of trauma, but did she feel abandoned when our father, (who was in the Navy during her early years) came home and showered her younger baby sister with affection and attention? Did she cry, “What about me?”
I climbed up on my father’s lap and rested my head on his shoulder. “Daddy, why are you so mean to Maddy? Please be nice to her.”
He grabbed me and set me down hard. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he growled.

“She’s taken off again. What should I do?” The police won’t do anything. I’m scared.”
“She’ll be back. Try to stay calm, “she said.
Then: “Should I place her in a treatment program? They say they can help her. But I hate to send her away.” I worried, was I repeating history?
“I understand but you have to keep her safe. This is her chance.”
Finally: “She’s coming home. And she’s better.”
“Thank God. You did the right thing.”
We never spoke of her illness.

I left the hospital that day, haunted by my childhood memories. My sister, who had become my friend and my advisor, spent the next four months in the hospital, in and out of intensive care. There was pneumonia, and then heart failure. She recovered from both but then she simply could not swallow. No one knew why.
My sister had just turned seventy-two when she died. She never made it out of the hospital, unlike her first hospitalization at age twelve. I found myself almost stoic at her funeral, detached and cold. Shock? Denial?  Survivor’s guilt? I just know I couldn’t find my tears.
Then two weeks after her death, I drove to Zumba class one rainy Sunday morning, my daughter’s favorite rock radio station blaring. I recalled her dancing to the music just the other night, her large, dark brown eyes sparkling, and my heart swelled with that special love that parents have for their children. And then it hit me: I can’t ever call my sister again to talk about our daughters. She isn’t home.
My sobs stunned me. My body shook. I pulled over. I finally surrendered to them and when I finished, a sense of peace enveloped me. I drove on.

Bari Benjamin, LCSW, BCD, is a former English teacher turned psychotherapist with a private practice in Pittsburgh, PA. Her essays have been published in Adoption Today and StepMom magazines, as well as Chicken Soup for the Soul books and several anthologies. She is currently working on a memoir book of letters to her adopted daughter.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Defining Childhood

by Jeanne Powell

A motherly looking woman shuffled slowly along the hall ahead of me, herding five children of varying ages towards the school registration office. The sound of her walk was a “slide, slide” rather than the “clunk clunk” of most moms at school. She didn’t seem to know or care that her pink striped top was strikingly mismatched to her yellow floral skirt. Seeing her, I instinctively knew which style of shoes she wore even before I saw them poking out from her long hem. Our whole school called them “Cambo shoes”, so I did too.
Puzzling words were a constant part of my everyday life as a kid. Teachers gave weekly vocabulary assignments with instructions to define each word and then use it in a sentence. When new words appeared in life, just like in school, my young brain set out to define and assimilate them.
Cambo shoes: Simple rubber sandals with a V-shaped strap at the top. The new students and their families wear Cambo shoes even when it’s cold outside.
Stockton, California was a typical suburban city, sprawling with new development in the early ‘80s. The Southeast Asians who took refuge in Stockton were just another group to assimilate and bring novel concepts into my world. There were many cultures and races around me, but given that had always been my experience, I never saw it as anything but normal. I believed that surely every town was as colorful as mine.
Southeast Asian: A way to sum up all the people who came from Cambodia, Laos and other faraway places that I’ve never heard of. The Southeast Asian kids at my school are super good at art.
My parents did not speak racist words, nor did they bring it to my attention that other people did. People looked and acted differently than I, but I understood they were mostly like me in every other way. Growing up, I don’t remember being aware that I should consider anything about a person besides whether or not they were kind.
And so, in 5th grade, when the disheveled, quiet, dark-eyed students with unusual names started filling our classrooms, I saw it as a promising opportunity to make some new friends. They arrived in groups, enrolling all at once. “Refugees” was the word my teacher used. I deduced its meaning and other new words that arose from their arrival from the context of my experience living among them.
Refugees: Children from Southeast Asia who don’t speak English, have scars and old clothes, and are shy but nice. The refugees left our classroom every afternoon for ESL class.
ESL class: The pretty room with the really friendly teacher where new students go to learn English. Helpful schools have ESL class for students who just came from another country.
Although there were many races at my school, differences besides coloring were hard to spot in kids I’d been with since kindergarten. Most of the student body spoke English and dressed similarly. The new kids wore their clothes many times before washing them and were often sent home for having head lice. I understood the troubling scars on their bodies to have a backstory, but my realm of experience could not grasp how or why. All I comprehended came from news’ snippets about Cambodia, Pol Pot, and the Khmer Rouge, overheard as I set the dinner table.
Pol Pot: A certain type of pole and pot which a bad king uses to hurt people in Cambodia. The mean fighters hit people with a Pol Pot.
The images I glimpsed on the six o’clock news became more real to me as I got to know the refugees. Those being hurt on TV looked like my friends. I sat, eyes glued, awareness expanding, purposely listening to Peter Jennings for the first time in my life. I began to pray for the Southeast Asians every night as I lay in bed, wondering why anyone would want to kill good people.
Correction: Pol Pot: The name of a terrible man who leads soldiers called “Come Here Rouge” to kill people in Cambodia and make the whole country communist. The terrible fighters hurt people because Pol Pot made them.
Communist: A kingdom where everyone listens to the king. Pol Pot will be glad if Cambodia goes communist and he is the king.
Certain “old” students, who weren’t well-received themselves, made jokes about our new students. They were mean to the refugees the same way they were mean to everybody else, pointing out anything which was unusual.
It was true that the Cambodian kids behaved differently than the rest of us. They sometimes squatted in an odd sitting position as they talked and didn’t look adults in the eye. They forgot to add an “s” onto words to form plurals, received a “free lunch” ticket in the morning and got to ride the bus to some far-off place called “Government Housing” after school. The important thing to me was that they wanted to be friends.
Government Housing: Big, fancy houses where government officials used to live.  The refugees needed a place to live, so Congress said they could have their Government Housing.
The Cambodian girls shared their favorite game called “Chinese Jump Rope”. It quickly became very popular with all the girls. Set was one of the best Chinese jump-ropers, outgoing and confident in her expertise. I was lucky that our teacher placed her desk right next to mine. As it turned out, we were a good team. I assisted her in class and she helped me advance my skill on the playground. We became fast friends, getting by mostly without words.
I memorized the songs full of foreign words which were to be chanted as precise jumps and turns were taken. I didn’t even try to understand the meaning of those words. They were just fun.
The new girls skillfully showed us how to weave rubber bands together to make the rope. Come recess, the blacktop, which had once been filled with Four-Square games, now had classmates standing in groups with a rubber band rope stretched around ankles, knees, and hips to create differing heights. The Cambodian girls were inarguably the best at it, but we American girls were having a ball trying to improve.
Chinese Jump Rope: The best game in the world! I would like to play Chinese Jump Rope all day!
Many Southeast Asian boys proved to be great, agile athletes, spending recesses on the basketball courts with the other boys, engaged in “Americans” verses “Asians” game. It was a quick way to pick fair teams. No one seemed to mind the politically incorrect team names because each group was proud of its nationality.
My mom said she was pleased that I had made friends with the refugees. I noticed that her smile was always a sad one, lips closed and eyebrows furrowed in sympathy, when we spoke of the new students.  
“I’d really like to meet Set someday,” she said. So I knew that when I asked Set to come to my house, Mom wouldn’t mind.
Set asked permission, but the next day she returned with news that her mother wasn’t sure. I didn’t understand. At home that night, my mom explained to me that Set’s mother must be very nervous to send her daughter, with strangers, to a home she’d never seen. Mom reasoned “It’s hard to trust people with your precious children when you come from a place of cruelty and war.”
I should “give it time because they just got here,” she said, but I was still perplexed.
War: Good guys fighting and killing bad guys in another country. Also, a card game to play with Grandma. People will be happy when the war is over.
Set begged her mom for several weeks until she finally gave the excuse that there was a logistics problem. “My mom no car,” Set told me one day.
I offered that she could walk home with me, and then my mom could drive her home later. There was no communication between our mothers because neither could understand the other’s language. We girls planned everything.
Set and I couldn’t stop smiling as we walked to my house. The path home was lively as always, with dozens of kids on either side of the street. Many went out of their way to say hello to Set. She responded kindly to each. I felt honored that she was going to my house. We joyously sang Chinese jump rope songs with a literal hop in our steps as we passed manicured lawns and freshly painted tract homes.
We were mid-song when a sixth grade boy, who always walked alone, yelled at us from behind, “Go back to where you came from, Chink!”
Suddenly concerned, I walked faster, unsure of what to do. Set matched my speed.
We were rescued by a group of boys walking on the other side of the street who played “Asian verses Americans” basketball. They, stopped and faced us as one shouted back at the bully from across the street, “Shut up and leave her alone!”  
I knew we were safe because the insulting boy was far outnumbered by peers with integrity. Set looked at me. I rolled my eyes and shook my head so she’d understand to ignore him. I hoped Set hadn’t understood his rude words. I didn’t even comprehend that last part myself. We started singing again as we rounded the corner to my street.
Chink: A word someone with no friends calls a person who does have friends, when they want them to leave. The strong boy punched him for yelling “Chink” at the nice girl.
I pointed to my house and together we ran up the lawn to our porch. Set stopped at our front door to remove her Cambo shoes. “You can leave your shoes on,” I assured her.
Panic and confusion crossed her face as she quickly shook her head no. “Ok, that’s fine,” I shrugged as she slipped them off and placed them neatly on our step.
Mom was waiting with new pack of rubber bands and cookies as a treat. “Hello, Set! It’s so nice to finally meet you!” she said with her usual cheery tone to my barefoot friend.
Set lowered her eyes and gave a slight, unsure smile as she put her hands in front of her like she was praying. Mom smiled back, “Thank you.”
I gobbled three cookies while Set nibbled one half as we sat, cross legged on the floor of my bedroom, adding an extension to our current rope. “I like you house,” Set told me.
“Thanks,” I responded without considering hers might be different.
“I like you bedroom,” she added.
“Thanks,” I said again as I looped rubber bands.
“I like you mom.”
 I looked up, beaming, “Thanks. I’m really glad you came over.”
With our rope long enough, we headed out to start our game. Outside, we easily gathered up some neighborhood girls and my sisters. Time flew. Set wowed us all with her expert moves until the sky dimmed and neighborhood dads began to pull into their driveways. I reluctantly gathered up the rope as our playmates said goodbye.
Mom drove us to the other side of town, where Set lived. It was a run-down apartment complex, situated in a series of apartment complexes. As we pulled up, I was shocked by the number of people packed into the small area. Grown men were squatting with their rears almost touching the ground, engaged in animated conversations. Very young kids were running on sidewalks and patchy-brown grass and dirt areas. It seemed that no one was watching them. Some people were napping right there on the sidewalk. Everyone was disturbingly thin.
Correction: Government Housing: A crowded place where hungry people live in small apartments that look old.  I’m glad I don’t live in Government Housing.
Set beamed as we pulled up. Suddenly I wasn’t so sure. Mom put the car in park, took a deep breath, and smiled back at us. “We’re here,” She said, more sing-songy than usual.
I took Mom’s lead and reluctantly got out of the car for my friend’s sake. The men’s foreign, loud conversations sounded like yelling and were high-pitched for male voices. Their words were like noises from the backs of their throats. Mom stood with her shoulders back, smile fixed, as her eyes darted around. “You girls walk ahead of me.” Her happy tone sounded more relaxed than she looked.
We followed Set as she wound around the unkempt building, through groups of men, who occasionally paused to stare. We climbed up dirty, outdoor, concrete stairs. I saw a few boys I recognized from school and felt more at ease.  We passed dozens of Cambo shoes lined up next to doors. I marveled that every pair of shoes represented a displaced resident of that apartment. They were tiny and large, wide and narrow, all well-worn and precisely placed. Set stopped next to the row of her family’s shoes, slid off her own, situated them neatly, and opened the door.
A woman gasped with excitement before she appeared right in front of us, obvious relief on her face. She gathered Set up in her arms and held tight. Set gently broke her mother’s hug and introduced us, in Cambodian. Her mother smiled slightly, lowered her eyes and prayed with her hands like Set had done at our house. Mom returned the gesture, so I did too. Set turned to us and said, “You meet my family,” and ran inside.
I started to follow her in, but Mom’s hand stopped me. I looked up as Mom nodded her head to the side towards the shoes and motioned towards my feet. She slipped off her own shoes. I stepped out of my penny loafers and placed them neatly next to Mom’s.
Stepping inside, I was shocked at the mass of people in the small space. There were no chairs or table or couch or TV. Many people, even elderly women, were sitting on the floor. A make-shift additional kitchen of electric skillets was set up, sizzling with food which didn’t look like nearly enough for that big group. The scent of overpowering spice and fish was like a punch in the face. It took all I had to maintain my polite smile.
Set proudly pointed to her cousins, siblings, and grandparents as she said their names. Each prayed their hands at us, and we returned the greeting. Sleeping mats were strewn about the floor. Set proudly pointed to hers, “This my bed.”
Mom and I both commented on how nice it was. It was obvious by the way Set’s face lit up that she was so pleased we were meeting her family. And, it was more obvious, by the awkward silence, that all the adults in the room were uncomfortable with us inside their home.
After a few uneasy moments of staring at each other without speaking, Mom said we needed to leave to “go get dinner started.” We put our shoes on and said our goodbyes. Mom held my hand tightly and maintained a polite smile as we walked quickly back through the dozens of grown men chatting loudly in their squat position circles.
Sleeping mat: A thin, hard blanket to use like a bed. My dad would not want to sleep on a sleeping mat.
I had so many questions for my mom on the way home that evening, but mostly I worried that my good friend lived in such spare conditions. Mom explained that Set’s family came from an even worse situation, and it was a good thing that they got to live there. She told me that even though it wasn’t perfect, they were safe and they had family.
“Didn’t you notice how happy Set was?” Mom asked. I told her I had. But things seemed so unfair.
Correction: War: Fighting which makes people have to live in another country with almost nothing except their clothes and hopefully all of their family. I pray there is never a war in America.
The plight of those caught in war was no longer about names in a newspaper but about people whose homes I could enter. They were friends of mine who had shown courage and kindness at school, trying hard to learn lessons in a language they barely understood. My friends were in the midst of a lifelong struggle. The group of people in my circle, the “us”, I was accustomed to, expanded. Set was in my “us”, and since she loved her family, now they were too. My innocence cracked as I struggled to process the distressing reality.
Set stopped coming to school suddenly, and a few days later our teacher told us that her family had moved. I had no warning, and I’m pretty sure Set didn’t either.
Decades later, I recognize the unintentional imprint she left on me, and I am grateful. Diversity comes in so many forms, shifting perspectives and linking people in big and small ways, changing the strange to the familiar.
It’s hard to believe I once called those sandals “Cambo shoes.” I wear flip flops almost every day now, too.

Jeanne Powell is a rookie writer who, at forty-three, is finally finding time to finish the book that has been building momentum in her head for decades. She has written various essays over the years, which are now being dusted off and polished. Jeanne lives in the beautiful Texas Hill Country with her husband Randy, teen kids AJ and Amber, two dogs, and abundant wildlife all around. A former elementary school teacher, Jeanne’s degree is in Child Development. She is also a certified Reiki Master and Life Coach. “Defining Childhood” is her first publication.