The Grandmothers We Love


don’t notice certain behaviors about people when you’re a kid, but you do
remember whether they were kind or not.

hadn’t realized it then, but my neighbor’s grandmother was an opium addict.

family had moved into the lower half of the Minneapolis duplex next door when I
was starting kindergarten. The neighbors had two sons: David, who was my age,
and Houa Seng, who was a few grades older.

most striking features about Seng were his burn scars. He was covered in them.
His ears had been burned off. His hair was thin and wispy. His lips had been
fused into his face. One of his eyes drooped. Both of his hands were stumps.
His parents or grandmother had to attach special dining utensils on his hands
when they ate. I remember thinking he looked like Captain Hook, but with spoons
and forks instead.

short, he was scary to look at for a kindergartner.

initial encounter was exactly that. I’d been in my parents’ room looking
through boxes while the rest of the family was unpacking. When I looked up at
the window, I saw him standing outside, and I screamed. My guess is, he’d been
curious about the new neighbors and wanted a peek at what we were doing.

My dad
rushed outside to investigate, and later had me come out to meet the new
neighbor kid. Houa had a pet rooster, so we immediately became fast friends.

I got
along well with both of the brothers, but since David and I were the same age,
we spent more time together. After school, we’d get together at his apartment
to watch and re-watch the same Kidsongs VHS movies. David and I would lay on
our stomachs to watch the TV in the living room, kicking our feet in the air, while
their grandmother sat out back in their three season porch. She had a little
wooden stool that barely stood up more than a couple inches off the floor, and
she was always seen smoking out of a bamboo bong.

wasn’t dangerous, otherwise my parents would have stopped me from going over
all the time. She didn’t wear a hoodie like in the videos or posters of drug
abusers that we saw on TV or on billboards warning us to stay away from. She
wasn’t a threat.

didn’t know what she was smoking, and I didn’t really care much, for that
matter. I cared more about the butterscotch candies that she’d give to me and
David. She always smiled and greeted me kindly whenever I came over. Unlike my
own grandma, she didn’t scold me as much when we jumped on their couches or ran
around the house.

When I
finally felt comfortable enough, I asked David what had happened to Houa.

David had been born, their grandmother was boiling a pot of water on the stove
while babysitting Houa. She’d then left to go to the grocery store, forgetting
both the boiling pot of water and Houa in the apartment. The apartment caught
on fire, and Houa was trapped inside, too little to reach for the doorknob and
free himself.

accepted his version of the story, with only one question in mind: How do you
forget a baby in an apartment?

family moved a year later, relocating to St. Paul. I never got to see the
brothers again.

later, I would pick up a local newspaper and see a familiar scarred boy on the
front page. He was being acknowledged and celebrated by his high school as a
gifted artist. The newspaper’s centerfold featured a picture of the white house
he’d drawn, with amazing details and skill.

As I
read the newspaper’s story on him, the article addressed his background,
sharing that as a toddler, Houa had been a victim of an apartment fire because
his grandmother had gotten high and left the stove top on while running an
errand without him.

wasn’t a kindergartner anymore, so I could reflect better on the situation: How
does a family live with someone who almost killed their child? How does a
family put up with the burden of an addict? How does the grandmother live,
seeing him everday and having his scars remind her of how badly she screwed up?
How did they continue letting her watch the grandsons–and me, when I came over
to play–without another adult supervision? How did the parents forgive her?
How did Houa forgive her? How did she forgive herself?

But I
had also come to understand the history of opium within the Hmong community. How
it was used to silence crying babies during the perilous escapes through the
jungles of Laos and Thailand. How it was used as medicine for ailments. How the
vibrant flowers were a thing of beauty. How opium was used to cope with all the
hardships of poverty, hunger, and war. And how opium may be used to cope with
the realities of the sins you’ve committed against family members.

In the
end, she was still their grandmother. When she wasn’t high, she was a sweet and
loving person. I remember her as kind.

finishing the article, I looked over to my grandmother, admiring the strength
she maintained even after witnessing the gruesome acts of war against our
people and overcoming the nightmares that probably haunted her dreams
regularly, with her only bad habit being a grouchy old woman who scolded her
grandsons for their raucousness.


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