In fifth grade, this girl across the street used to hang out in her front yard, inside the decorative concrete fence. We’ll call her Lalla. Her same dirty, well-worn jacket and pants hung on her thin frame every season of the year. She had this habit of chewing on a strand of hair as she watched us kids playing group games on the street between her apartment house and mine. Unlike the rest of the neighborhood kids, she never climbed up on the fence to sit and dangle her feet. Kids called her Lalla Louse. “Don’t get close,” they’d yell, “the lice will get you!”
When she came to school—a day or two a week—she was mostly ignored. We attended different classes, but I’d see her at recess. “Your hair taste good?” kids would say as they pushed her, sometimes roughly, out of the way of play. It was a constant reminder that she was worthless. She never fought back. I saw the hurt in her eyes like she’d been kicked in the gut again and again. We didn’t know much about the rest of her family except that her parents were alcoholics, illness grown-ups talked about in whispers.
When girlfriends came wearing pretty dresses to my 9th birthday party, Lalla, wide-eyed and with a chronic runny nose, watched from across the street. Mamma suggested I ask her to join us for the cake part. “It will ruin my birthday!” I said horror-stricken at the thought. After my friends left, Mamma called from the kitchen window, “Come on over, Lalla. There is hot chocolate and a big piece of cake waiting for you in the kitchen.” Listening to Mamma talking to Lalla like she was a normal kid angered me. Mamma was ruining the good feeling from my birthday party. “What grade are you in now, Lalla mín (dear)?” I heard Mamma ask as she heated the hot chocolate. I listened to her chat while Lalla ate my cake and drank my hot chocolate. Even though Lalla didn’t respond like polite children are supposed to, Mamma pretended it was okay.
After she left, I told Mamma that Lalla had lice and that our kitchen may now be harboring hundreds of lice ready to pounce on unsuspecting family members. Mother did what she always did when I was hard-hearted, looked at me until I could feel my heart slam against my chest. Shame on you. Shame on you.
Why, more than half-a-century later, do I still carry this memory? I didn’t call Lalla names, use her as a target for my snowballs, or say mean things about her. Sometimes I defended her, although modestly, reservedly. And only sometimes. What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Moments when another human being was suffering, and I responded timidly or not at all. From the perch of an older person, the people I remember are people who showed me kindness. A nurse at the sanatorium who stopped by my bed to stroke my face before she left work. The high school teacher who tolerated my rebellious ways and listened instead of punishing. The woman I waited on at the Fireside Lounge who saw my ashen and exhausted face and reached for my hand and said with unexpected tenderness and compassion, “You look so tired.”
Kindness is the image of a mother bird feeding her chicks. Who are we in this representation? We are both. Sometimes we relate to the babies—tired, raw, hungry, and desperate for attention as I was that night. Sometimes we are the mother (the woman at the Fireside Lounge). Kindness is not about puppies and lollipops, and it can be hard to express. It’s not about doing something for another because they can’t, but because you can. Kindness doesn’t cost anything and it’s contagious. When we are kind to another, we bring kindness into our own lives, and we don’t go through life remembering opportunities missed.