In an easier light

SHE was only nine -- a little black-eyed beauty who stepped off the train with a suitcase in her hand and more aplomb than I might hope to muster. Only nine, yet ready to plop herself into my world, a stranger's house, for two weeks of fresh air. Even now, in my 30s, I don't think I could do that. But there she was, waiting for me to make the first move. I thought she might look a bit bedraggled. Thought I could take her shopping for some nice, new clothes. But her little suitcase was filled with summer outfits, newly purchased and pressed.

I had hoped she might be a slight bit ``slighter'' -- so I could fill her with delicious home-baked treats. Instead, we stopped first at a grocery store, where she led me around selecting all her favorite items right down to her particular brand of butter.

We were both shy at first. She, needing to know my reasons for having her. I, needing to make her understand all at once. After six years of teaching young children, I had stopped to have a child of my own. And though my baby boy took up every spare moment, I missed my students terribly.

Especially the little girls who buzzed about so brazenly in our private world, the classroom. I missed those gawky, giggling girls who taught me the latest dances and raced to finish their work so they could brush my hair. And I, who seemed to have so much -- a healthy baby, a happy home -- wanted to do something good for someone else.

I had fixed up the spare bedroom for her, complete with flowers, books, and stuffed animals. She chose a yellow bear to sleep with the first night; a bear with a mother's heartbeat to sooth a crying child. We sat on the edge of the bed together planning our next day. She didn't ask, but I kissed her goodnight and left a light on in the hall.

``How did you sleep?'' I asked in the morning.

``How could I sleep with that old bear going boom-chuka-boom all night!'' she said, reaching for her second batch of pancakes.

We didn't stop for a moment's rest -- first the beach, then the park, a pony ride, a movie -- and this all in the first day! She liked action and the hectic pace kept up. I was exhausted (the 2 o'clock feedings were still going on). But we were becoming friends.

I was getting to know all my neighbors, too. She was out on the block only two days, and in no time scores of barefoot children appeared at my door giving names and taking ice pops.

Soon various parents made their way over to see where their little ones had disappeared, and I was meeting the very people I had seen disappearing into their front doors for all these years.

In the evenings when my husband was about to come home, she fell silent and whispered: ``Is Monster home yet?''

Looking at the two of them I could easily understand the seeds of prejudice hastily sown. My husband is a wonderful, loving man, but a reticent man, one who needs others to make the first move. And she worked the same way: holding back, separating herself, waiting for him.

They were oceans apart. I had to be the bridge, building the stanchion of trust slowly, cautiously, with a firm footing. A lasting bridge.

It wasn't always easy. There were times I wanted to pack her bag and send her right back home. I was trying to be kind, and she was not always gracious. I was trying to be charitable, and she couldn't have cared less. At times she was recalcitrant and downright nasty.

But she taught me about real kindness -- that it doesn't come with any guarantees or patronizing pats on the back. Real kindness is the stuff that is given freely, even if you know you will get nothing in return.

Our time was almost up. Time for her to go home -- home to the hot city streets and the gray, noisy dawns. The night before she left, we had our last barbecue. She sang that silly song my baby loved. And then she asked me a question I have never gotten out of my mind.

Just as we were about to go inside for the night, she asked: ``Don't any of you ever stoop-set out here? Why do you go in now, at the best time of day?''

I looked out toward the deepening sky. The sun was just settling itself, casting a softer, more soothing light than earlier. Less flaunting. An easier light. Perfect for long talks and intimate gatherings. Perfect for ``stoop-setting'' -- as they do where she lives.

She told me about everyone in the building who came out to the stoop each evening after supper: Junior, the skinniest boy with the most cuss words and the least sense; Uncle Johnny, who wore diamonds and drove a fancy car; Angie, her best friend; and Old Lady Jackson, who knew everybody's business before they did. She told me about sad things and funny things and things I wished she didn't know about yet. She put my hair in cornrows, and we sat on the stoop and talked till way past dark.

``No,'' I said finally. ``We never stoop-set out here. I don't know why we go in at the best time of day.''

But we do, out here in our green, grassy neighborhoods. We each vanish behind our locked doors, into our detached enclaves. We rarely share that easy light.

When I put her on the train, she asked for another kiss and told me to give one to ``Monster'' for her. Then the whistle blew and I waved goodbye to my little black-eyed beauty, my breath of fresh air.

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