In the traditional Hmong culture, when a person dies, a spiritual guide leads them back through all the homes that have held them safe so that they can thank the spirits of the earth, the sky, the water, the wind, the walls themselves for holding steady and providing necessary shelter.
I’ve just turned 41. While my fondest hope is that there are still homes in my future, I know with a quiet certainty that there are now more homes in my past than I will ever know again.
My people believe that an old year can carry on its way out the sorrows of years past; we believe not only in the carrying away of sadness but the value of imparting gratitude. It is in this spirit that I reach out to the homes that have made me who I am. Each place has given me and my family enough. Enough shelter. Enough food. Enough reasons to hope and dream, to work and to pray, to believe in a future, to carry us here to this moment in time.
I journey first across an ocean to the first home I knew in the hot spread of a refugee camp in northeastern Thailand, to the place where I was born. In the camp, my family lived in a longhouse where each family slept in a small room to the front which then opened to a communal cooking area. In the open expanse of fire rings, different families made dishes from the rations handed out in the camp and gathered for meals around wooden tables. The aluminium roof that covered the longhouse kept us dry across the rainy seasons of my childhood.
‘Belonging to a people’
Even now, I can still feel the warmth of my sister’s arm alongside my own in the bed we slept on with our parents, both of us listening to the sound of the falling rain, trying to pace the beating of our hearts to the patterns above us, music driven by wind and water. I am grateful for that place that granted me life, that first showed me the comfort of others, that taught me the importance of belonging to a people.
From that place where we waited for resettlement, my family flew on an iron eagle to America, where we first lived in a shared basement apartment in cold Minnesota. We were newcomers to the country, unsure of its expectations. There were three bedrooms in the dark apartment. My uncle, his wife and their three young children shared a room. My mother and father another. My older sister and I slept in the third. My memory of it: damp and musty. The air smelled of old cigarettes. The brown carpet felt sticky to our bare feet, as if we were walking on strips of old tape. One day, my mother and aunt cleaned the oven. There was old food caked on the bottom. My aunt took a bread knife and started scraping. It sparked. In fear, she screamed. Startled, we all screamed. There will forever be an image of my aunt, still young, her long black hair parted in the centre and pulled back from her face in a clean bun, standing in that sliver of a kitchen, holding the bread knife in her hand. I still see how slowly her mouth opened and how from the depths of all the pressures she and the rest of the adults must have felt in trying to keep us safe and healthy, there was laughter buried inside, laughter that rang out across that apartment and changed the mood of our welcome to this new life, frightening and full of surprises.
Once my aunt and uncle decided that they would leave Minnesota and reunite with the rest of the family that had resettled in California, my mother and father could not afford the basement apartment any more. They registered for and were granted a townhouse in a housing project on the edge of a highway overlooking downtown St Paul. The housing project was on a stretch of rolling hill. All the houses looked the same, rectangles of stucco rising out of the ground, covered by a long triangular roof. In our segment, there were two bedrooms upstairs and a bathroom. On the main level there was a living area and then a short hallway that led to the kitchen with its round table. A dark entry in the kitchen led into the unfinished basement with its cement walls and concrete floor. In this house our family grew. We welcomed a brother. His body was small, but his voice was big. He cried the nights through, unable to tear himself from a schedule of sleep in our mother’s womb. Our mother and father took turns walking the hallway with the crying baby in their arms, trying to shush him with their songs and sighs. Across the space of nearly 30 years, I can still hear my father’s deep voice singing to my brother of birds and bees, the sounds they make, and our mother’s voice, pleading, making promises of love eternal, each voice drifting in the spaces between the baby boy’s cries.
The house with a ghost boy
In the housing project, Mother gave birth to another girl, making us a family of six. They were both working now in the factories along the outer edges of the city. We no longer qualified for public housing, so they applied to a different governmental programme that helps poor families find single houses. They found us a little house in a quiet part of St Paul by an elementary school that my older sister and I could walk to and back from by ourselves. We were jittery with excitement at the thought of living in a house with a back yard, a house where neighbours did not live on the other side of the walls. We did not know that we would have to share the house with a ghost boy.
The ghost boy who lived in our house had once been alive. When he was alive, he spent time in the cedar attic playing by himself. One day, there was an accident. He’d been sitting on the top step of the steep stairway. He’d dropped a car or a ball. In his grab for the object, he’d tumbled down the stairs. His body fell until it hit against the door. Something broke and it could not be mended.
By the time we moved in, the ghost boy re-enacted his fall nightly. I’d hear a sound like a toy falling, then a body following, the sudden thud against the door to the attic. One time, I saw the boy himself: a snippet of a child in a striped black and white T-shirt, a shy skipping version of flesh and bone, looking at me from the hallway as I grabbed a diaper for my newest baby sister in the bedroom my parents shared with the younger kids. I tried to blink away the vision of the boy, but he refused to be unseen. When I garnered enough nerve to walk towards him, he ran into my parents’ closet. Too afraid to chase, I ran out of the room.
In the different spaces of that house, the boy watched us. We are eating at the table; I can feel his gaze from the basement door. We are watching television in the living area; I know he’s in the hallway peeking in. I’m in the shower, he is outside of it. I’m in the yard beneath the tall tree and its canopy of leaves with the younger children, the boy is inside the house, at the bathroom window, looking out at us play.
We grew afraid of the boy. Our fear of the boy made us afraid of the house. We urged our parents to move.
In a great hurry, our parents found us an apartment in a different part of town, a louder, poorer part of the city full of newcomers like us, poor Black and brown folk. Rubbish flew across the lawns. Cubes of broken car windows glistened in the streets. The apartment building was full of Hmong refugee families like us.
Our unit was on the fourth floor. We lived across the hallway from an old man and woman. They had grandchildren who flooded their house on weekdays. On the weekends, it was just the two of them. The old man was often lonely. He used to walk that stretch of hallway with a broom and dustpan, sweeping the debris off the carpet, whistling all the while.
One night when our parents were working, when the younger children were already asleep, when my older sister and I sat in the small living area doing our homework, there was a knock on our door. On a chair, my older sister looked out of the peephole. The elderly neighbour stood there dressed in full military regalia – camouflaged shirt and pants, a hat on his head, and his broom in his hands like a gun. My sister waived me onto the chair. I saw what she saw. We whispered to each other. Should we open the door or not? It was well past midnight. Where was his wife? Where were the other neighbours? How come everything was so quiet? How come he was just standing there at our door, waiting? My sister cleared her throat and called out, “Come back tomorrow in the morning. We are not opening the door for anyone tonight.” The man at our door made no sound. He made no moves. He continued standing, his broom of a gun at the ready. At some point, we decided he meant no harm. We decided he could keep watch if he wanted to for as long as he needed to.
‘This tastes just like home’
After six months in the apartment, my mother and father finally found us a house we could afford. It was a small shotgun house built in 1895, just a mile away from the apartment on the loud side of town. Its ragged carpet smelled old and musty. In winter, the hairs of the carpet along the windows and doors froze stiff and hard. The house was filled year-round with the scent of steamed jasmine rice. When we fried egg rolls, the walls held the scent for months.
One year, tempted by the scent of a neighbour’s grill, I dug a hole into the ground. I found a metal grate to fit the top of the hole. I built a fire of sticks inside it. I sliced a chunk of pork, seasoned it with salt and black pepper. I invited the younger kids. We sat around our makeshift barbecue smelling the meat cook and drinking soda. We ate bowls of rice and water with bits of grilled pork. The scent of the smoking meat drew our father outside, and he took a bit of the meat off the grill and tasted it and declared, “This tastes just like home.” Home. The meat of the old country. The place before the war. The memory of his boyhood in long ago Laos on the mountain tops. I breathed deep the magic of our little moment in the falling dusk.
The small house was often crowded. Our shoes rose like a small hill at the entry of our house. The sight troubled Mother. It spoke loudly to her about how we children needed more space to grow, how we needed more quiet to do our school work, how they needed more room to breathe beyond the confines of our little house. She felt guilty that they could not offer their children a bigger house, a healthier place to grow and become. After a break-in, Mother pressed for a new possibility.
‘Our story on the prairie’
Our new possibility turned out to be a brown house with a walkout basement on a small expanse of Minnesota prairie 45 minutes out of the city. There were old sycamore trees around the house, their arms thick and strong, their leaves deep and dark green. It was bigger than any house we’d known as ours. There were four bedrooms, three small ones upstairs and a slightly bigger one downstairs. The younger children and our mother and father slept upstairs.
My older sister and I shared the downstairs. We had a long windowless room in the back of the basement filled with shelves along its walls. We turned it into our library. We stocked it with books we bought for quarters at the secondhand stores and the free books the public libraries kept out for poor children. We loved our books and our library. Its single bulb against the unfinished ceiling, the dangle of a cord swinging along its side. We ran fast to the library to check out our books. Ran out looking behind us each time, afraid that the characters from the books, particularly the horror ones, would chase us out. In this brown house on the prairie, our family grew like the saplings in the back yard.
None of us saw the end coming to our story on the prairie. None of us could have predicted that Mother would be let go from her job pulling files in the vault of a bank because of bone spurs in her shoulders. None of us understood the greedy impulses of our father’s employer; he and 15 other men on the night shift lost their jobs because they wanted to have a conversation about safety at work. Suddenly, there was no more money to pay the mortgage. The bank wanted to claim the house.
The whole family was scared. Where would we go? How would we live? Father despaired, unable to sleep at night, unable to talk with us about the worry that weighted his heart. Mother started looking for houses. Smaller houses. Bigger ones, too. She gathered their paperwork and looked at the numbers on their retirement accounts from when they both had jobs. She saw an advertisement for a house and pleaded with our father to visit.
After a few weeks, he agreed, only to see, not to dream of it, not to yearn of it, not to try to live in it.
The house of my mother’s dreams
We visited in the fall. The map led us to a single dirt road that climbed a hill. The road ended in the driveway of a brown house. Around it, on all sides, there were trees. Big trees that marked a forest, the last of a remaining forest. We breathed in the birdsongs. We breathed out the heaviness clouding our vision, the instability of our current moment.
Mother said to Father, “I’ve never asked you for anything before. I ask you now to do everything you can so that we might be able to move here.”
Father looked helpless before her words. He shook his head and opened his palms before her.
In them, she placed the paperwork that said they had retirement plans they could cash out and make a bid for a house where their dreams could continue to grow.
I have never lived in this house of my mother’s dreams, but I know it as their forever home. The house sits low and close to the ground. Inside it, there are three bedrooms. Out back, there’s a stretch of lawn. Mother and Father keep chickens and ducks that run free across the property. There’s a pen where there are pigs. There is a fence with three cows and two calves. There are guard dogs on long leashes alongside the pine trees, beneath the fir with its bed of leaves heavy on the ground, below the spread of ash and maple trees. In this house, my mother and father no longer work.
In this house on the hill, they walk among the grass, breathing free. When the planes soar across the high skies, they look up, and I am grateful for the place they now occupy, the refuges we’ve known, the sanctuaries we’ve been offered, the homes that we’ve outgrown.
In my heart, I carry each place, all the good and the bad and the sometimes scary, the quiet joy, the raucous laughter, the fun and fury of our lives unfolding. In my heart, I am grateful for each experience because it has brought us to a life I cherish.
In the spirit of a new year, I’m letting go of the old sorrows, and I’m choosing to hold fast to the memories we’ve shared as a family, as a community.
Here is a life far from death, hoping yet to discover the beautiful places of the Earth, filled with gratitude for the homes I’ve known. Here is a tribute to the homes that have taught me about survival, how to be a family, and how to ride the winds of hope, carry forth ideas of belonging. Here is a remembrance of the places that have built a family and ensure its continuation.