The story starts in 1981 when Grandpa and Grandma picked up the Xiong family—Hmong refugees newly arrived in America with a passel of skinny, dark-eyed children—at the Eau Claire airport.
Well, actually the story starts before that, during the years of the Vietnam War, when the Hmong people living in the mountains of Laos were recruited by the CIA to fight secret battles against the communists, using spy techniques and guerrilla warfare. In 1975, when the Americans pulled out, the Hmong were left to the mercy of the communists. Genocide began immediately, with thousands of Hmong killed and villages reported to have been wiped out by chemical warfare, or “yellow rain.” The Hmong families trekked across the Laos countryside and swam the Mekong River to refugee camps in Thailand.
Grandpa and Grandma, with the backing of their local congregation and a sponsor program headed by the Lutheran church, offered an empty house they had on their property and enough support to get a refugee family on their feet. When they met the Xiongs at the airport that day in 1981, they soon discovered that Gi, the oldest son, was the only one of the family who spoke English.
Gi said he was eighteen, but Grandpa thought he couldn’t be more than sixteen. A hard-working farmer himself, Grandpa soon found him a job at the local cheese factory. He didn’t last more than a few days before the boss told him not to come back.
“I was so undernourished, I couldn’t work,” Gi told Grandpa many years later. “We lived like deer in the Laos countryside, ate leaves off the trees until we got to the refugee camp. My muscles were too weak to do much. I fell asleep at my work.”
Grandpa hadn’t known.
Yer was Gi’s younger sister, a tiny fourteen year old who spent happy times playing with Mary, Grandpa and Grandma’s daughter who was just her age.
The Xiongs stayed only six or eight weeks before they packed up and asked to be taken to St. Paul, where their married daughter lived. Mr. Xiong told Grandpa he planned to go on welfare, learn English, and get enough education to get a good job.
About a month after dropping them off, Grandpa and Grandma drove back to St. Paul to see how they were doing. The Xiongs had disappeared, with no one in the house where they had been but a burly black man who said he’d never seen them.
They heard nothing from them until years later, when Yer wrote to thank them for what they had done for her family and to say she wanted to stay in touch. She had met a young man in a St. Paul high school named Nathaniel Stewart, whom she married and eventually had three sons with. He was going to medical school; she was a successful realtor.
Yer took Grandpa and Grandma out to eat, and Grandma started sending her a Christmas card and newsletter every year. Yer wasn’t a letter writer, but sometimes she would send a card.
More years passed, and Grandma needed to have knee surgery done. “Go to Dr. Stewart in Chippewa,” my parents told them. A top-quality orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Stewart had been the one who pieced together my brother’s shattered wrist bones after a snowboarding accident.
Grandpa and Grandma didn’t make the connection to Yer until they got to the clinic and Dr. Stewart asked their names and told them his wife was their little Hmong refugee. He ended up doing Grandma’s knee surgery for only half price. Like many conservative Mennonites, Grandpa and Grandma had never bought health insurance or collected social security, under the belief that doing so would be placing trust in men and governments rather than God. The fifty percent discount was greatly appreciated.
Dr. Stewart, a kind man who got right down to the level of his patients, seemed to take a liking to my grandparents, and a bond of friendship grew between them. I think he admired Grandpa’s determination, his gruff and kind-hearted character. I know Grandpa thought highly of him.
The Stewarts helped in other ways—a free x-ray, driving up from Eau Claire to visit, an invitation to the Xiong family reunion. At the reunion, Grandpa reconnected with Gi and learned that he and another brother had bought a million dollar pig farm in California, that they had paid it off and were making a profit. The Xiong parents had passed on, but their children were doing well for themselves.
Once Dr. Stewart brought his two youngest boys to see the farm where their mother had played as a little girl, the farm my parents now own. They went in to the barn to see the forty Holsteins lined up in their stanchions. When Yer was young, she had thought there were thousands.
Recently, Grandpa’s artificial knee became infected, and he had to have surgery to remove the old knee, antibiotics to clear the infection, and another surgery to replace the knee. Dr. Stewart not only did his part in this costly procedure at no charge, he was instrumental in influencing Grandpa to sign up for an aid program. This man who had done so much for him—whatever his convictions, Grandpa just didn’t think it would be right to tell him no.
And that’s how a good deed done in 1981 paid for my Grandpa’s knee surgery in 2015.
“Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days.” Ecclesiastes 11:1