TWO BIRTHDAYS, TWO LIVES…So Similar, So Different

| March 13, 2012 | Comments (0)

Lilly and Esther are two little Asian girls who both turned seven on Saturday, March 10th. They both had birthday parties attended by family and scores of friends. But there the similarity ends.

Lilly lives in a grand dwelling in Westchester County, New York. Actually it is more of a manor house, set on several secluded, wooded acres reached by a long, winding landscaped driveway lined with Victorian -style gaslight lamps. There is a three-car garage that houses two shiny, new SUVs and a collection of children’s bicycles, skateboards and other expensive toys, impeccable model cars from FAO Schwarz that Lilly and her  two brothers  can sit in and peddle around  the tarmac  in anticipation of the time, not too distant, when they will have their very own adult cars to take them to the Mall and other places  where little princesses and princes go.

The house itself boasts five bedrooms and four baths, not counting at least two powder rooms off the great room and the vast country kitchen. The floors are carpeted wall-to-wall, deep pile,  each room a different, restful hue of earth tone. Furniture is tasteful, expensive and minimal, suited for a household peopled by active youngsters who are apt to cartwheel over a sofa or jump up and down on an easy chair.

Esther lives in a tiny, dark basement in a mostly Asian section of Queens, not far from the raucous crossroads of Jackson Heights’ ethnic melting pot; Little India  gold shops and curry restaurants cheek-by-jowl with Colombian gay bars and Arab kebab stands, a neighborhood of new arrivals, not yet prosperous, still waiting to catch a ride on the American Dream train.

Directions to Esther’s home include “just next to the parking lot”, actually an automobile graveyard enclosed by a forbidding chain link fence surrounding expanses of crab grass and the carcasses of rusting vehicles. The “house” consists of three rooms, created from carved-up basement space divided by plywood partitions that serve as makeshift walls. Several naked light bulbs affixed to the ceiling provide minimal illumination, giving the place a permanent twilight look.

As honorary Godfather to these two little girls, I am invited to TWO birthday parties. Luckily, the events don’t conflict, allowing me to attend both celebrations.  Lilly’s party is set for 11Am and is being held in conjunction with a house-warming for the grand new home her father just bought as part of his relocation  to a new job and a big promotion. We are all proud of Allen, who barely thirty-five, has reached the rarified rungs of senior executive-dom and must now live the part by residing in a property fit for a CEO. I have known him since he was Lilly’s age when he and his family were poor and struggling to get out of Burma. 

The special feature of Allen’s house-warming is the Sun Chwae, the blessing of the new residence by Buddhist monks and the prayers, chanting and ceremonial feeding of the bonzes to make the home a  safe and happy place to live in. Allen has brought the two monks from their small monastery in Queens. They are youngish and handsome in their robes, one in saffron-colored cloth, the other draped in a deep maroon  habit, more typical of Burma and northern Thailand. As they chant, I feel a wave of peaceful resignation wash over me, and, duly relaxed, I am pleasantly surprised that my Burmese language has come back to me, flowing effortlessly after all these years away from the Golden Land. I speak wih the monks and promise to visit their monastery. After  prayers and chanting, the monks bless my Chiang Mai Buddha talisman and we take our lunch; home-cooked Burmese food, spicey  bits of pork floating in rich, fragrant oil; balachaun condiment, rare to find outside of Burma. I eat so much that my hostess, Allen’s wife, prepares a doggie bag for me to take back on the train for my dinner when I reach home.

After a perfect morning among good friends and gentle monks, I make my way back to the city, a dreamy half smile on my face as we rattle over the rails back to Harlem.

My next birthday appointment is set for 8 PM at Esther’s house in Queens. I am always at a loss as to what to give children today. The last gift I brought Esther was a Christmas present,  a Doctor Seuss book which I love. Esther took one look at it and pronounced it to be  a “SILLY BOOK !” This time I’ m playing it safe and bringing her a 200-piece glitter puzzle which I am told is popular among little girls her age. Lilly got one earlier in the day and seemed happy, but Esther is, aside from being the most beautiful child I have ever seen, extraordinarily bright and unpredictable.

When my partner and I approach Esther’s door, we are greeted by the sounds of hymn music and voices singing. Esther’s parents, Roger and Nanny, are Indonesians from Menado, that part of the archipelago nearest the Philippines and equally  fervent in their embrace of Christianity. So I am  being treated to a religious double-header – Buddhism for lunch and Indonesian Protestants for dinner. After waiting for prayers to finish before we ring the doorbell, we enter the confined space and are greeted by 30 or more guests. A special genius of Southeast Asians is to fill a room with more people than you could ever imagine being squeezed into such a place, in this case no more than 400 square feet, and not feel the least bit cramped.

Everything is very organized and we are handed a program. At the far end of the room I see a sumptuous buffet table, but that will have to wait a while.  I scan the pages of the program  and note that we have lots of prayers and hymns ahead of us before the “ramah tamah” (party) part of the program. I roll my eyes and settle in for a long haul of preaching and pull out my Kindle e-book. My partner gives me a frown and I tuck it back into my pocket, resigning myself to an hour more of “God is great.”

Praising God and thanking him for his beneficence seems, to me, almost a cruel joke in this house. Roger, forty-four years old, recently suffered a massive  stroke leaving  his left side dead, making him an unemployable vegetable. After arriving in the US  fifteen years ago and staying on as an illegal, working at various jobs, including busboy in a Chinese restaurant in New Hampshire, he landed a laundramat delivery-boy position in Manhattan and was making enough money to support his new wife and their infant daughter, Esther. Now stricken,  his future, their future, is bleak. I grow angry and nauseous as the priest continues his long-winded peroration, thanking God for being so kind and loving to Roger and his family. Bullshit! Hog wash ! Unadulterated crap !

Tempted to bolt from the place, but restrained by not wanting to hurt the feelings of the flock who had gathered supportively around Roger, I begin deep breathing, a technique I learned years ago to ward off panic attacks. After what seems like a century, I hear the word “Amen !” and give my own kind of private thanks that we are returning to the real world.

I smile at Esther and struggle to hold back tears when I gaze into her beautiful, childish face. She saves me from emotional meltdown by dragging me to an open area on the floor, leading me into an impromptu game of hopscotch over the square linoleum tiles. As we leave, I slip Roger a hundred dollars and give Nanny a bottle of expensive Chanel cologne, gift-wrapped at Bloomingdales. Nanny is shy, a bit homely with slightly bucked teeth. Nobody pays any attention to her. She stays in the background, seeming to always be near the stove. But tonight she takes flight and speaks eloquently to the guests, thanking them for their support of her and her family. I now realize that this congregation is keeping Roger, Nanny and Esther alive, both spiritually and financially and, atheist that I am, I do see the value of organized religion. There is a good side to it.

As we head back to the Bronx on the subway, my head  is of full of thoughts about my two little goddaughters and what the future holds for them. I also laugh to myself. Attending TWO birthday parties for two seven year-olds in one day is a sure sign that I, as a 73 year-old, have entered my second childhood !

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