I got my nails done today and they look fabulous! Really! I love looking like a girly girl!
I was looking totally fantastic with my makeup on point and my silver shoes glinting in the overhead lights. I was pleasantly surprised the nail salon was rather quiet. Only one other client was there as I walked in, which is not the norm but then again…it was 11am on a Wednesday.
Shared the usual “hello’s” and “how are you’s”. You know the general chit-chat you have with people you do not know but trust them to manhandle your appendages and make them look good.
I was waiting for my turn with Penny, the owner. She always takes extra care of me. Or at least I think she does. Penny is sweet and sassy and funny. She always makes a trip to her salon a worthwhile experience.
Today was no different. But today was more enlightening than normal.
The conversation with her went from funny to serious in a moment. AND NOT BY ME!
She asked if I spent time with my family for Thanksgiving and I explained that other than my sister-in-law and niece and nephew and their families…I really don’t have family I choose to spend time with.
She looked at me so sadly and just held my hand. It was such a sweet and generous moment of compassion that was so unexpected, I honestly teared up. I smiled and said it was okay, I just spent the weekend with my dog and we hung out in our jammies. (Insert polite laughter here!)
Then…she started to ask why I didn’t spend time with my family.
“Was it because they are alcoholics?”
Hand to god, people! She asked this with a very quiet and curious tone.
It stunned me! She usually does not go that deep in our interactions. But she must have had something to share and, well, she caught me off guard.
I shyly responded, with a knot in my throat, “Actually, I was raised in an alcoholic home and still deal with the issues from it all.” Blinking tears away, not for the last time this visit, by the way.
She patted my hand and began to explain how she is dealing with her youngest brother who refused to come to their brother’s house for Thanksgiving, because he was told there would be no alcohol. Her youngest brother is very deeply entrenched in being a drunk it seems. I admit a tear slipped down because, fuck, if that didn’t hit closer to home than I thought it could.
“I am so sorry. I know how difficult that is,” I whispered because, honest to fuck, how do you respond to someone admitting to the very thing you have gone through in life; seeing someone you love slowly lose themselves to booze or drugs. Knowing that struggle. Knowing the loss and pain and defeat when you try to help them.
Miss Penny is such a sweet woman, I had to hug her! Broke my heart to think she was hurting because of this.
But…I was not done finding out a little bit more about my favorite nail lady.
She said she did not have a drink till she came to America. It was not something that was part of her life back then. And since I love hearing people tell their stories I asked when she came to the U.S.
1979-she was just barely 21. She and her family left Laos during the mid 70’s under threat of death and hindered by the Communist party as they tried to escape. That portion of Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) was under siege due to the Vietnam War. In fact, she and her father were working for the Americans at that time-for the freaking CIA no less. Their neighbors did not trust them because of this but the US companies paid better. But everyone around their little community assumed they were spies because, well, it was that kind of dystopian country at the time. Everyone was a “narc” and everyone was the enemy.
Then things got worse, as if a war torn country in the middle a fight to be controlled wasn’t bad enough. Their little village was about to be over taken by the Communist army.
She waved her hand in the air at that point of her story. It was as if she needed to clear the memories from her internal vision.
She got quiet, and me being me, I had to ask.
“How did you leave?”
She looked up with those sharp, sassy, brown eyes, smiling.
“We walked out.”
Her father decided that they had to go. They had to leave their home and find refuge.
But here is the thing…
It wasn’t a matter of packing a suitcase, kissing the goat goodbye and waving as you strolled down the road claiming you will send a post card when you get where ever you land.
It was with only the clothes on your back, money sewn into your shirt, and for her, her 9 month old son at her breast. You only moved at night so the patrols, both the Communist, Russian, American and Cambodian patrols, had a harder time seeing you. You often had to pay for protection and guides to get you from one point to another. You had to be so silent that if you or even your child made any noise that would be loud enough to bring a patrol running at you…you would be killed on the spot.
She saw children killed in front of their parents as warning. She saw families left to fend for themselves when the guides said to run and those poor souls where not fast enough. She said she prayed so hard that her son would just stay quiet and had bound him to her breast to suckle so he would not make a sound.
And then…after getting through the jungle, they had to cross the water. She chuckled and said that the name of the river she crossed had changed hands and names so often it was jokingly referred to as “Just the River”.
“Just the River” she said, was as wide as the Mississippi and if you could not afford a canoe you had to swim it. Some people would let you hold a rope along their canoe but the moment you slowed them down or caused the canoe to tip-you were cut loose to fend for yourself. She said she and her family was lucky-they had a canoe. Well, if what she described could actually be blessed with a name like “canoe”. Reeds and ropes and a board in the middle.
But they got to the other side. Missing some people from the original group. Missing some of her own family members. They spent nearly 2 years in a refugee camp being drilled and grilled about what to do, who to talk to, interviewed and interrogated. Other countries would come to offer help and sanctuary, she said. She could have left earlier if she had wanted to go to France or even Canada. Some of her family chose Canada, in fact. But her heart was set on America.
We were the shining beacon of hope to her. A new place for her to raise her son. A place where he would have opportunities. A place where she could find peace after a lifetime of chaos.
She got to meet President Jimmy Carter once. Had no clue who he was but smiled and shook his hand like she had been told to do.
And then they finally got here. And what did she face?
Hate. Racism. Anger. People blamed her and the others for the Vietnam War and for all of those American lives lost.
What the hell? She was from a country that was not involved in the war. She was from a country that got caught in the cross fire.
“You all looked alike to those people, I suppose”, I said. She laughed. “Yeah, and you all looked alike to us!”
Yet here Miss Penny is, 39 years later. Several more children. Grandchildren. An annoying ex-husband. Oh-the husband who gave her her eldest? Well, he never made it home one day back in Laos. He had been caught by a patrol. They had barely been married a year.
She owns her own business, has helped others also open their own salons. She mentors young people to give them a chance at a better life. She loves her kids. Loves her work. Loves to gamble a little. And despite the rocky start she had in this country, she loves America.
Oh! Her first drink? It was champagne to celebrate landing in the U.S. She loved it and for the first few months she admits she went a little wild. She was free and in America and was taking advantage of all we had to offer a young woman in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I have a mental picture of this tiny woman with big hair and bigger shoulder pads.
Then after her story and as we both realized she had finished my nails, she laughed! She has the funniest cackle! Infectious really! That was the past.
This is her present!
She has made a wonderful life for herself. She is surrounded by what remains of her family. And even though her one brother is an alcoholic, she was not giving up hope that he would come back to the family again.
Miss Penny-ever the optimist!
I share this story as a reminder of two things:
FIrst-never be cruel or judgemental to someone. You have no idea what they have been going through. What they have survived. (And yes-I know! Seems weird that I am saying not to be judgey when I am doing that ALL. THE. TIME! But I judge people on the important things-like their choice of outfits and hair.)
Second-when you see a strong person or witness their strength in action, find out how they stayed strong. How they persevered. How they survived.
Personally-I always want to know what darkness did they conquer? What obstacles did they over come? Or, as in Miss Penny’s case, what rivers did they have to cross?
Mountains do not rise without the earth quaking and forcing them up from their foundations.
Strength is not something you are born with. It is something you have earned.
Be strong my lovelies.
I am comically and tragically pissed off about things.
In my defense...I was left unsupervised.
In my defense...I was left unsupervised.
Bizarre thoughts from author Jenny Lawson - Like Mother Teresa, only better.
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