My Minnesota

Building memories that last for generations

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 23, 2011 - 2:22 PM

Kao Kalia Yang remembers so many things about her childhood home at 437 York Av. on St. Paul's East Side.

Kao Kalia Yang remembers so many things about her childhood home at 437 York Av. on St. Paul's East Side.

The big oak tree out back. The lilac bushes. The little cellar. The pungent smell of the mold on the walls. The sagging porch. The lead lurking in the white paint and black trim around the windows. The one bathroom for nine people. The small garden where her mother, Chue Moua, planted mint, cilantro, green onions, pumpkins, green peppers and twigs to guide her long beans.

"Growing up there, we saw men with brown bags in their hands and everybody knew it wasn't sandwiches," she said. "It's a place where kids could kick at rocks and bottles."

She remembers converting the dining and living rooms every night so she and her five siblings had somewhere to sleep.

Most of all, though, she remembers the big picture window.

"That's where my Grandma sat to dream," she said. "She'd look out at us going to school and wait for us to come back again."

The house is gone now. Yang wanted to buy it for $13,000 last year, but couldn't afford it. Habitat for Humanity stepped in and razed the little house built in 1895. Teams of volunteer retirees, including former President Jimmy Carter, helped put up a new two-story house. An Ethiopian family, the Nigatus, will now raise their two daughters there.

"The house is gone, but the space is there and the window is in the same place," she said. "It's the same size - looking out over York."

Yang was born in the Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand, the second child of Moua and her father, Bee Yang. She was 6 when she came to St. Paul in 1987.

Her celebrated memoir, the Latehomecomer, won two Minnesota Book Awards last year. She landed a full-ride writing fellowship to attend Columbia University and then parlayed student loans into a down payment on a home in Andover for her parents. She's currently the writer in residence at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, teaching and compiling her father's song-poems into a new book.

When she met the Nigatus' two daughters at 437 York, she gave them copies of her book, which includes passages about her childhood home. She smiled at the notion that each girl will have her own bedroom on the second floor where the sky once hung over her home.

"I want it to house their dreams, too," she said. "When I think back, that's what I think about. That's what I miss. That's what I love about this place, Minnesota."

 

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