What a strange, odd child

I was, back in the days when dirt had recently been invented and dinosaurs newly emerged.

When I was just 6, my family moved from Oklahoma to New Mexico. (Later, I was to hear several versions of why that occurred. I still don’t know which, if any, was true.) Oklahoma contained people of color (including my huge–6’4″ or taller–and monstrous–he pulled out all my bicuspid baby and permanent teeth–Cherokee dentist), but not so much people of other languages, so the lovely brown-skinned Spanish-speaking people in my new home enchanted me. (And forced me to learn Spanish, so I’d know what they were up to.)

My new school decided pretty quickly to bump me from second to fourth grade, and in fourth grade Joyce Hoff entered my life.

Joyce was a refugee, with the rest of her family (of six children that I can bring to mind) from then-Dutch Indonesia. She and her brown-skinned siblings spoke what she called Dutch and a little English. Since my only experience of brown-skinned people at the time was that they spoke Spanish, I found her immediately intriguing and exotic.

Margaret Mead, who always said that anthropologists should run fast and far from the first person of a new tribe to approach them, because those were the outcasts and cripples and untouchables, would have run away from me really fast, because I was always drawn to the new kids, the different kids, the kids who didn’t fit in.

Joyce was one of those. The first day she was in school, her English wasn’t very good, but she didn’t respond at all to Spanish (from us kids; our teachers didn’t speak Spanish, ever, even if they might have known it). I asked her at lunch where she was from; she replied Dutch Indonesia. I asked her where that was and she gave me a fourth-grade immigrant’s response: somewhere out in the Pacific Ocean. It was years before I had the resources to look that up (no Internet, people).

I had enough money (a nickel!) for a Major Treat that day–a rare thing, maybe once a month: a Popsicle after lunch. I bought one, and broke it in half to share with Joyce. We sat on the concrete sidewalk between the school building and the playground, under the shade of a metal canopy that rippled with heat, enjoying the cool fruit-flavored ice on a desert-hot August day.

In return, she taught me a little song in what she called Dutch but was probably some combination of that plus the language of the island on which she’d lived (based on the fact that Google Translate’s Dutch version of the words bears absolutely no likeness to the words I know, and I still remember both the tune and words). I have absolutely no idea how to spell them, and I confess the following is colored by my father’s elementary and frustrated German instruction to me:

De besom, de besom,
ich fea me, ich fea me,
I vee, I vee

This translated, Joyce said, to, “The broom, the broom, what do you do, what do you do? I sweep, I sweep.”

A baby’s song. Along the lines of patty-cake, patty-cake. But I thought it was inordinately cool. A Dutch song! Imagine! All the way from somewhere out in the Pacific Ocean–and since I had family who lived in San Diego, I knew where at least the eastern shore of that was.

Joyce was my connection to a world so exotic, so strange, so immense, so full of wonders that I could hardly take it in. I could not understand why no one else in my class, or my teacher, seemed to think this of any interest at all.

During the next eight years we went to school together, Joyce and I had our ups and downs. At times, we were best buds; at others … not so much. She went on a few longer trips with me, to El Paso a few times and I believe on a national park camping trip or two, but I can’t remember where. In high school, we went in mostly different directions, though we both felt more comfortable with the brown-skinned people (in her case, the other brown-skinned people; in my super-pale-skinned case … well, it wasn’t because of skin color).

We stayed in occasional touch after college, but not until years and years later did we reconnect. She married (and remains married to) her high school sweetie; I remain single 23 years after divorce ended a 25-year marriage. Her grandkids are almost grown; the oldest of mine are thinking about the possibility of approaching puberty.

Now we’re in fairly regular communication. Her parents are gone; her husband’s parents either gone or in shaky health; her brothers and sisters scattered all over and in various life situations. My parents are likewise gone and I never had siblings; my kids and grandkids a fair bit younger than hers. She’s a retired physical education teacher who’s still athletic; I’m a retired journalist who knows how to spell “athletic.” She gets back to our home town fairly regularly because of her husband’s family; I haven’t been there since 1990.

But even after 60 years, when we talk, that Popsicle still lives.

“You know,” she says, “it meant so much to me that someone in a new place would share a Popsicle with me. I still remember that.”

“And I,” I reply, “still remember the song you taught me about the broom.”

Posted by wordsmith

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