“It doesn’t matter if you aren't there to take care of me. I can come home from school and eat the raspberries in the backyard!”
I was eight or nine. I was enduring my father’s insufferable lecturing and these few words uttered with defiance and terror would be the biggest fight of my life. They are my first memory of ever standing up to my father and that moment would define me in unsuspected ways.
Every time the broom was swung across the tiled floor of our family kitchen one decibel too loud or any other chore was executed with less than grateful zeal, my father reminded my siblings and me that he had been trusted with the wellbeing of his village at the tender age of eighteen. He had led a platoon of Hmong soldiers during the Secret War across the heavily shelled mountain jungles of northern Laos before a single wrinkle dug into his deeply dark forehead. Now a retired, unrecognized, wounded veteran and refugee in France, he had relinquished his past glories to be a homemaker and caretaker while my mother would be the provider, picking tomatoes in local greenhouses.
I don’t quite remember how the reprimand started, although there is little doubt it was well deserved. I do remember that my ears were burning up while I stared with anguish out the open French doors of our living room. The gauzy curtains were swaying in a slight breeze and outside, the rubbles of dirt and pebbles that constituted our rocky backyard was basking under the early summer sun. My mother always said I had the smallest, most stubborn ears she had ever birthed.
School was not quite off yet but my favorite month was well underway. In France, May succumbs to long extended weekends celebrating Labor Day, Catholic holidays and World War II commemorations. It also marks my birthday and the soon-to-be-announced summer break. The anticipation of three months of gamboling through the fields and along the rivers around Nouvoitou exacerbated a growing refusal to bow to the weight of my father’s legacy. Even then, I recognized it was a legacy too heavy and too foreign, thousands of miles away from me and the reality I lived in.
Now, if only my father wasn’t the one stocking the raspberry bushes with chicken manure and irrigating them with a self-engineered rainfall-capture system, my rebuttal would have had so much more clout.