A broom from Lee

IT all began when I noticed that what had been a tiny barbershop for men was undergoing a drastic change. The outside was painted and, inside, plants were flowing from suspended pots. New fixtures were installed, and from the kind of furnishings it was obvious that it was going to be a ''beauty parlor.'' The owner was a Vietnamese woman, tiny, slender, young, and hopeful. She had recently graduated from a local school that taught shampooing and setting of hair, and all the other arts connected with such a business.

Hesitant, I went inside one day to look about. It was bristling with newness - counters, chairs, and the equipment that goes with such a shop. The floor was covered with red and tan linoleum. I put myself in the owner's hands and found them not only capable but gifted, if one may use that term. Her way with what had to be done was expert and confident, and I was well pleased, continuing to go week after week.

When I first went to the little shop, Lee, the shopkeeper, had a minimal knowledge of English. It was just enough to communicate with customers, but she was eager to learn, listening intently, grateful if one took time to explain a word she did not understand.By speaking slowly and enunciating clearly, I found it amazing how, from me and from her other increasing clientele, she was learning our language quickly.

A very tidy woman. If there was so much as a lock of cut hair on the floor, she would bring out a broom and sweep it deftly into a dustpan. I noticed with some amusement that she still clung to a Vietnamese broom - a medium handle made of bamboo, attached to what looked to me like a swirl of curled feathers resembling the tail of an exotic bird. (It was actually a fragile sweep of wheat-colored straw.) I wondered how long it would be before she would discard it and buy herself an American broom - surely superior to what she was using.

But this is the strange thing about that broom. As I watched her meticulous use of it, the turn of the wrist, the wide sweep of the broom, the way it got into corners my own broom, too large and stiff and limited, could not, I paid attention. It became evident that it was an efficient broom. Not only corners but the narrow spaces between counters and other furniture - you know those spaces where crumbs sift down in a kitchen? Between countertop, say, and refrigerator? Or stove and sink? It just curled its way into those usually neglected places and whisked out whatever was there.

''Lee,'' I said one day, ''would you please buy me one of your brooms in your marketplace?''

Her eyes widened with surprise.

''You like this broom?''

She was smiling, delighted that I approved of it. Then she explained its good points, which I had already observed, but was pleased to hear again. She was not busy at the time and demonstrated. I watched closely.

''I will bring you one from our marketplace,'' she promised. And did.

Immigrants! I was a child of immigrants, but too young to know what it was of their old country that was well accepted here. Now I see samovars and heavy copper pots in expensive antique shops, and heavy, brass candlesticks - all exactly like the kind I grew up with.

America! What a haven for those who knock at its doors. There are always shock waves at first - new customs, a new language, wanting so much not to be different. But the very substance, the essence of our nation is that delightful difference, muted as time goes on, but there, like still fragrant, dried flower petals.

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