Bob Schally and his wife, Ruth, liked to sit on a bench outside their yellow St. Paul home, keeping an eye on neighborhood children skateboarding down the street and watching the seasons change.
It wasn't a regular bench. Maroon and plush, it used to be the back seat of an old pickup truck. After his wife of 60 years died, Schally sat on it alone.
That's where he was when the little girl who lived across the street came to visit him and give comfort in his grief — a bittersweet moment that inspired her mom, author Kao Kalia Yang , to write the award-winning children's book "A Map Into the World." In its pages, Bob, Ruth and their bench are there in vibrant illustrations by Seo Kim.
When Schally died last May, his family wrote in his obituary that he was a "teacher of life and a book inspiration." They also decided to give his special bench to Yang. She was moved to tears, but felt it would be "selfish" to keep it for her family alone.
"I knew Bob had children and grandchildren. I knew the book was in the hands of children across these cities," Yang said. "I wanted it to be in a public space. It belonged to a memory bigger than my own."
So she donated the bench to St. Paul's East Side Freedom Library , an independent nonprofit now housed in the building that was her childhood library.
In the picture book "A Map Into the World," which was published in 2019, Yang writes from the perspective of a young Hmong girl named Paj Ntaub, who moves with her family into a new home. She is a careful observer of the world outside her window, including her elderly neighbors.
In real life, Yang and her family noticed the Schallys across the street, sitting on their bench, when their Realtor first took them to see the house that would become their home.The elderly couple and Yang's young family — twin boys soon joined her daughter — became friends, and Schally enjoyed sharing vegetables from his garden.
"From our first introductions, he was curious and kind," Yang said. "He was a kind and humble person who laughed easily and shared his grief openly after Ruth died."
It was a "particularly sad day," Yang said, when she saw her neighbor sitting alone on his bench and decided to cross the street with her daughter and nephews.While she sat with him and visited, the children asked if they could use their chalk to draw on the driveway.
"As we talked, they drew," Yang said. "He told me it was his 'swan's song.' I didn't know what that was. He told me that the apple tree in his backyard was giving him more blooms than ever before, that the tree would yield a big crop and that it was saying goodbye. He was weeping."
In that moment, the kids came close. "Bob asked, 'What did you draw for me?'" Yang said. "My daughter whispered, 'A map into the world, just in case you need it.'"
"So, to take him beyond the season, perhaps the year, give him something to look forward to, I said, 'What if I turn this into a children's book? Write a book for you and Ruth?'"said Yang.
Her elderly neighbor laughed, she recalled, and wiped his eyes. 'You would be turning a weed into a flower,'" Yang said he told her.
"I pointed to my yard. We laughed together. I had to make the book real," she said.
Even though she had never written a children's book before, Yang did make it real, including a dedication that reads, "For Bob, who loved Ruth."
She writes beautifully of the moment that inspired it all, as the little girl character begins to draw with chalk:
"I started my picture with a teardrop.
"And then I made it splatter like sunshine. I drew lines leading away from the splattered sun in many directions. ... "
She draws lines out to the garden, the grass, the sidewalk and her own house, creating pictures of a yellow ginkgo leaf, white snowflakes, a smiling worm and purple lilac flowers.
"And then I drew a line, the biggest line of all, toward the street, and there I drew the whole world," Yang writes.
The book gave Schally something to hope for at a difficult time, said his daughter, Diane Schally Erickson.
"I was very proud for that to be part of my dad's legacy," she said. "When she told him about it, he was very excited, and that actually gave him something to look forward to, which he really needed because of his grief."
When Yang's editor received the first copy of "A Map Into the World," she drove over so that Yang could give it to Schally.
"He took us to the kitchen. He held it to his heart. He said, 'You'd taken so long, people were telling me that you were just pulling my leg,'" Yang said. "When he opened it, his hands shook. He kept wiping his hands over the pages. He wept. We all wept."
They shared a happy occasion at the book's launch at the Minnesota Children's Museum in September 2019. Schally brought his family, and stood for applause from the crowd after Yang's reading of the book. Kids asked to take their picture with him, and he smiled for many photos.
When the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library announced in January 2020 that "A Map Into the World" was a finalist in the Minnesota Book Awards, Yang asked Schally to go with her to the ceremony planned for later that spring.
She secured tickets, but the ceremony went virtual because of COVID-19. By the time it was held that April and the book won the children's literature award, Schallywas ill with cancer. He passed away in his home a month later, at 92. Yang was unable to visit at that point in the pandemic but knew that Schally's family was with him.
The bench's new home, the East Side Freedom Library, is quiet these days. It is open by appointment only during the pandemic, with programs often happening outdoors on its front lawn. Still, it has provided a fitting backdrop in videos — Yang recorded a speech for a virtual conference there, and a pair of Stillwater teachers sat on the bench to create a video lesson about "A Map Into the World."
The library, run by historians Peter Rachleff and Beth Cleary, works to tell stories about its surrounding community and provide resources about its labor and immigration history. The 1917 building once housed the Arlington Hills Branch of the St. Paul Public Library, where Yang spent time as a child and where Schally would check out books.
For Rachleff and Cleary, providing a new home for the bench "means the world to us," Rachleff said. The East Side neighborhood began to change rapidly in the late 20th century, as companies like Hamm's, 3M and Whirlpool left, taking jobs with them. Many people of European descent moved out of the neighborhood, and immigrants from Southeast Asia, Central America and East Africa moved in.
Interactions between older white residents and newer residents of color haven't always been positive, Rachleff said, and that makes the story of Yang and Schally's connection even more important. The bench can help tell it.
"People can actually sit on a piece of history, and learn the story about how an older white couple and a new Hmong family built a relationship by sitting and telling stories to each other," Rachleff said.
"We wanted the library to be a space to provide a culture that was supportive of sharing stories, and resources that would enable people to place their experiences within a historical context. And so the bench is the embodiment of that."