IT'S just after Christmas. As carols play and lights blink, I look to the new year while giving thanks for the old. Good things can come in such clusters as to take one's breath.
My tiny single-woman's apartment shows happy changes. Witness torn jeans on the sewing machine, dirty work socks scattered, a soft drink can on the television set, a finer guitar than my own, a leather Bible that has seen battle , a pair of toy Greyhound buses parked on the piano, an enormous Irish sweater in the works.
On the dresser a framed photograph portrays a dignified young girl in a cherry-red bow blouse, dark hair in bangs, large brown eyes set far apart, high-arched brows, the pretty mouth firm, unsmiling. When her father asked why she hadn't smiled for the camera, she flashed him a silly overdone grimace, then looking serious explained, ''It's for school.''
The story began in the back of a Greyhound bus at 6 a.m. the previous Dec. 24 . The trip home would take seven hours. A self-sufficient spinster, I planned to listen to tapes and catch up on reading. But several families had laid their sleeping babies in extra seats. When I complained, the driver told me to sit in the back row or get off the bus. I took the last seat, fuming, ''I didn't pay for this!''
Prince Charming - a soft voice in the early-morning darkness - offered me his aisle seat, but noting his long legs I declined. We visited throughout the trip, exchanging military experiences, life philosophies, poetry. The Prince telephoned my father's home (''It's a man,'' Dad said, amazed) to be sure we took the same bus back. So we enjoyed seven more hours of good conversation.
There followed long walks, bargain matinees, motorcycle trips, better jobs for us both. One day I learned about the daughter in Vietnam, how his family had been working with various agencies to have her brought to America. I studied old snapshots, listened to stories. Aside from being hungry, as a GI child she was being denied schooling. Pictures taken years apart showed the same dress (sewn by her American grandmother), serious face, skinny legs.
''You don't mind about her?'' the Prince asked.
''Mind?'' I answered. ''If you love her, I love her.''
We set a wedding date, polished the silver crown from Sweden, ordered a white suit, gave the baker two toy Greyhound buses to top our wedding cakes. One week before our wedding we learned that the child would leave Saigon in two weeks - with her mother and younger half brother. My parents-in-law agreed to sponsor them.
As Christmas approached, we sent a letter asking for sizes and foot tracings. The newcomers stood 3 feet 10 inches, 4 feet 10 inches, and 5 feet. A fuzzy pullover in Easter-egg colors was mailed off for the young lady's 13th birthday. Placed in fifth grade, she'd learned just enough English to talk on the telephone: ''Happy Birthday, Daddy! I love you.'' Her voice was husky. From that moment I loved her.
During that time many ugly dragons of bigotry, prejudice, negative assumptions reared their heads. Passions flared. I lost a friend because I hesitated to buy into her hatred for all Asians.
The long-anticipated meeting consisted of a heroic bear hug. Little brother found ''Sesame Street'' on the television. Then their mother returned home from packing vegetables, weary but very proud to be holding a job.
Next day, the Prince and I had errands to run. His daughter came with us to the bank, the newspaper, a gift shop, the baker who made our wedding cakes. When we walked past a restaurant, she sounded out the name: Mex-i, Mexi- . . . Mexicali. We wondered how she perceived that afternoon and the symbols of prosperity around her. As we walked, my mother drove up in what the girl called ''a pitty car'' and took us to her house.
When Grandfather handed them the bright packages, both children waited for a signal to begin opening. Moments later the little boy was steering his remote-control race car around furniture legs, back and forth, cheered on by all. The girl still had not attacked her large box. Observing how she was already using a touch of her mother's eye shadow and blusher, I wondered if the big doll was too babyish for her. But when the lid came off, she squealed and pulled frantically at the wire that held the doll's neck in the box. The doll was a hit! This child had never had one, so as she ran forward toward eye shadow and blusher, she was running backward to catch up on playing with dolls.
On the trip home, we spoke of our immigrant family and of his daughter, her obvious intelligence, radiant smile, clever hands, melodious voice. I suggested she might become a TV newswoman. Loan officer. Commercial artist. She might wear the silver wedding crown someday, and the Prince could escort her down the aisle.
Above all, the 5-by-7 framed school picture says this young lady is an American citizen, daughter of a woman who is working hard to become independent, encouraged by 800 other Vietnamese in the community. She is well nourished and surrounded by love. Most important, she is a school girl.
So please don't try to tell me immigrants are no good; my Irish ancestors caused considerable disturbance here - and we didn't get back on the boat. We stayed. Survived. Contributed. Don't tell me spinsters can't fall in love or sad conditions are irreversible or that change for the better only happens slowly.