Dad, I thought of you today, and for some reason my memory whirled back to the first few days we settled in a new country, after mom and I joined you there. We were so happy to be reunited! We hadn’t seen you in ten months, but it had felt like an eternity. You wanted to make up for lost time by doing something nice for us, so you took us out to the big department store in town to buy us gifts. Mom had pointed to an elaborate play tea set she thought I might like. It was pink and white and came with twelve doll-size cups and saucers and a plethora of accessories. I had never owned anything so extravagant. But my eyes kept straying to the small desk and chair on display in the educational section. I recall your surprised look when I asked if I could have that, instead. Mom was perplexed; a seven-year-old girl who preferred furniture to a toy? But you, Dad, you smiled, as if you understood.
Of course, you didn’t know about the countless times I cried because I couldn’t speak or understand the local language and my classmates snickered behind my back. I never told you about the paralyzing fear that gripped me whenever Sister DeSaille paced the classroom floor beating her cane on the palm of her hand, while I sat frozen at my desk in front of a blank page. I never mentioned the time I took the wrong route to school in a torrential downpour and my shoes got stuck on the muddy path. I spent all day with muddy shoes and socks hoping no one would notice. I never mentioned any of that, knowing how hard it was for you and Mom adapting to a new country, a new language. I didn’t want you to have to worry about me as well.
But somehow you knew, Dad, because not long afterward you took me out of that school and put me in a nicer one, with children who weren’t unkind and didn’t laugh behind my back. I wasn’t an invisible figure anymore. The world around me still felt foreign sometimes, but at my little desk at home, all that insecurity slipped away. When I sat there, wonderful things happened inside my head. It was where my imagination ran freely, spontaneously, unhindered by fear or cultural barriers. In my make-believe world there was no nastiness, and children were seen and heard, regardless of what language they spoke.
When I grew too big for my desk, you got me a real one. “You need one with drawers in which to store your stories,” you said. Because you knew what that little desk represented for me, how it had made me stronger and helped me overcome my fears. More than a play tea set could have ever done.