The block where we lived was mostly three-story brick buildings and concrete driveways. Right in front of our house was an opening in the sidewalk, a square measuring about two feet by two feet that must have once been home to a tree. I would play in the dirt that filled that square, sometimes for hours. Well, not exactly play. I was digging a hole to China as part of an ongoing project. It hadn’t been my idea. I was five years old, and didn’t even know what China was. We had a piece of furniture in our kitchen that had sliding glass doors and was filled with white plates and gold teacups and tiny silver spoons. My mother called it the china cabinet, so in my little-boy mind I thought China was where they made those things. And that confusion occasionally solved the problem when I went looking for something to do.
“Why don’t you dig to China?” one of the grownups would say. They’d smile, as though they didn’t believe I could do it, but I would show them. Let my parents and their friends sit on their folding chairs in front of the house and have their drinks and tell their mysterious jokes and stories. I was after something valuable. There was treasure down there. In China.
I don’t know how far I ever got with the project. My tools were not the best, and I doubt the hole’s depth ever reached more than a foot or two. Still, I can remember imagining that the next shovelful of dirt was going to produce a breakthrough, empty space, an opening through which real-live people would be looking up, surprised to see me. And they would be surrounded by things made of shiny gold and white porcelain — stacks of plates, cups, and saucers. Reaching that place would be a monumental achievement. But at some point I must have figured out that the dirt was too hard, the ground too solid and deep for me to ever reach China. I moved on to other things.
Twenty-five years later, my first child was born. Her name was Allison, a beautiful baby with eyes filled with wisdom. Her birth took place on the happiest and saddest day of my life, a swirl of events that comprise a story much too long to tell here. Allison and I were mostly alone for the first eight years of her life, and I’ll leave it at that. She grew quickly; I did my best to keep up.
One morning when she was a year old, I was trying to get her to eat breakfast, and she wasn’t cooperating. I had to go to a meeting and was taking Allison with me. I worried that we’d be late, and the more I worried, the more she refused to eat. Frustrated, I surrendered to the dumbest of my impulses and emptied the bowl of oatmeal onto her head, gently twisting the bowl back and forth as if to permanently seal it in place. This was not a good move. Now I had to give her a bath and wash her hair, and the only thing sealed was my late arrival at the meeting.
A couple of years later, Allison would cry when I left her at a daycare three mornings a week, and she ran to me when I picked her up in the afternoons. One day she cried more than usual and her teacher told me hours later that Allison had been complaining that her toes hurt. When we got home, I saw that I had put her shoes on the wrong feet, and realized she’d been wearing them that way all day. I told her I was sorry; she hugged me and said it was all right.
When she was barely five, Allison started kindergarten. We walked hand-in-hand to the corner and the school bus came and she climbed on and sat down and the bus left. I waved goodbye for a minute, then just stood there staring for a couple more. She never looked back.
The years that followed were filled with school concerts, plays, parent-teacher interviews, Girl Scout meetings, sleepovers, movies, grocery shopping, laundry, and most of the things that make up a young girl’s life. I’d find half-eaten sandwiches under the bed and I would yell at her. She’d promise to never do it again, but a few weeks later I’d find another sandwich. When I brushed her hair after a shower, she’d become teary-eyed because the brush would get caught in the tangles; I eventually learned how to brush her wet hair without hurting her.
One day we set up a Little Mermaid aquarium in her bedroom and put five goldfish in it. She came home from school the next day and one of the fish had died. We flushed it down the toilet and I waited for her questions, but they never came. The next day a second fish was dead and we repeated the ritual. I was appropriately somber, but Allison remained quiet. On the third day, I found another fish floating near the top of the tank and when Allison arrived home, I prepared myself for her grief. Instead, she said, “Can I flush this one down the toilet?” Within a week, all five goldfish were dead and gone, and she seemed content with her clean, dry Little Mermaid aquarium. In 1992, Allison wanted to be the Statue of Liberty for Halloween. I spent two weeks making her costume. By the third door I was carrying the torch, and by the fifth, the crown as well.
When Allison was eight, she and her friend Meaghan devised a plan to introduce me to Meaghan’s mother, Maria. Within three months Maria and I were married, and we’ve now been together for seventeen years. Allison graduated from high school and university with honors, and just recently completed her teacher certification. Her boyfriend, Tyler, got his certification in the same program. However, their attempts to find jobs proved fruitless and this past spring they applied to a program that hires teachers to work in foreign countries. It has been another twenty-five years since Allison’s birth. Two weeks ago she and Tyler got on a plane and left, for China. They will be working there for at least this school year.
My hope for Allison since the day she was born has been that she would grow into a mature, thinking, caring adult, and that she would have a few good people in her life who loved her. She has accomplished all of that, and more. Now she has embarked on an adventure of which I am not a part. I have no advice for her, other than to say, “Be careful. Have fun. Soak it all up. Ask questions before you eat.”
China no longer seems as far away as it once did. Allison left here early on a Wednesday morning and twenty-four hours later she was in Beijing. I’ve spoken to her briefly and we’ve exchanged a couple of emails. She has set up her classroom and has started working with students. One of her dreams has begun. At any given moment I can only try to picture where she is, what she’s doing, how it all looks and sounds. I won’t see her in person until next June. That’s both exciting and difficult.
If I could, I would go into the backyard today and start digging. I have much better shovels now, but still, I know she’ll be back long before I’d ever reach her. In my mind, though, I peer down through that long, dark hole. I find an empty space and through an opening I see Allison looking up at me. She’s one year old and has a bowl of oatmeal on her head. She’s three and her shoes are on the wrong feet. She’s five and stashing sandwiches in her room. She’s seven and holding her torch proudly over her head. She’s eight and playing matchmaker. Stacks of memories, shiny and golden and safely stored in the cabinet of my mind. And now this most recent stage. She’s twenty-five and teaching young children how to learn. She’s still teaching me, as well.
She’s a treasure, my Allison, and she’s there. Right down there. In China.