January 13, 1997 12:00 PM

IT HAD BECOME A SORT OF NEIGHBORLY ritual in little Monarch Bay, Calif., some 60 miles south of Los Angeles. Whenever they anticipated visits from Justin and Sydney Simpson, shopkeepers would quickly scan the shelves and conceal the magazine and tabloid covers with anything about OJ. Simpson, their father. “We just call a couple of minutes beforehand and say, ‘We’re coming over,’ and they take care of it,” says Denise Brown, 39, their mother’s sister.

Despite such efforts to shield the youngsters from the maelstrom that has swirled around their family since their mother, Nicole, was murdered 2½ years ago, the latest twist in the seemingly endless saga could hardly be kept from them: They were going home to Daddy. Since a judge awarded OJ. Simpson custody of Sydney, 11, and Justin, 8, on Dec. 20, they have moved from one cocoonlike existence to another, leaving the protection of grandparents Lou and Juditha Brown for a life behind the gates of Simpson’s Rockingham estate. There, in the very home where they spent their earliest years—and with a Christmas tree bedecked with gold bows Sydney had made with her mother—the children found themselves in a new phase of their relationship with their father, a tie that Orange County Superior Court Judge Nancy Wieben Stock ruled appears to be “strong, positive and healthy.”

In fact, in the face of tragedy and contention, Justin, a devotee of basketball and Sega video games, and Sydney, who likes soccer and dance, have shown a resilience that seems almost incomprehensible to adults. “Their mind isn’t on that stuff,” a Simpson family member says of the custody battle. “Their mind is on when the ice cream truck is coming today.” As early as a week after their mother’s funeral, the children, then 8 and 5, were playfully tumbling across the floor amid the candles and flowers filling their grandparents’ home in their mother’s memory. And on his first day at his new school near the Browns’ home, Justin proudly asked his classmates, “Do you like football? Well, my father is O.J.”

Whether he has retained that naivete remains an open question. “They know more than we think they do—children always do,” says Anneliese Schimmelpfennig, headmistress of the Laguna Beach school the children attended while living with the Browns. (They are expected to start this month at a Los Angeles parochial school.) Just after the custody settlement, a Los Angeles television station reported that evidence in the suit included a story Justin had written for a third-grade assignment in which the characters are himself and two other children. “The murderer has Aaron as hostage,” he wrote. “Romez and I have found the murderer but the murderer has a knife and machine gun held to Aaron’s head.” The story concludes chillingly: “Solved it: Romez and I found out that the murderer was my-dad.”

While Justin may be struggling with doubts about his father’s guilt or innocence, others close to the family have their doubts about Simpson’s ability to play the role of full-time parent. “O.J. was a wonderful, kind and dutiful father,” says author Thomas C. McCollum, who has known Simpson, 49, for more than 20 years. “However, he wanted to be a father on his own terms. He was around when he wanted to be around.” Adds actress and writer Robin Greer, a friend of Nicole’s: “He wasn’t very available to them, so Nicole was pretty much raising them single-handedly.” But another friend of O.J.’s says that since Nicole’s death, Simpson—who has spent every other weekend and some special occasions with the kids—has become more hands-on in his fathering. “He plays Mr. Dad,” says the friend. “He bakes cookies with them, he plays with them, he works out problems.”

He’ll have plenty of assistance. Simpson’s older sister Shirley Baker, 53, and her husband, Benny, 61, a retired bus driver, who have a home in San Francisco, now reside most of the time with Simpson at his Rockingham estate. He also has a housekeeper, a gardener, a pool man and two bodyguards, though it remains baffling how, with mounting legal bills and no work, he can afford such luxuries. Yet outside the mansion’s gates, Simpson’s pariah status might pose problems. “Some of the mothers were friends of Nicole,” says a parent whose children attend a local school. “They don’t want to have to run into O.J. at PTA meetings.” But so far the neighbors’ presumed chilliness hasn’t affected the Simpson offspring. “They have not spoken of any ugliness,” says the relative. “They don’t even seem to be aware of the possibility.”

Still, their new life will be a contrast to the sheltered life they shared with the Browns in the gated community of Monarch Bay. “They brought a lot of light and good energy to our school,” says headmistress Schimmelpfennig, who says Justin has a knack for languages and Sydney is a born teacher.

Though Juditha Brown would inquire regularly about the children’s progress, says Schimmelpfennig, Simpson visited only once: “A year ago, he went into our office and asked one of the teachers, ‘Why is Sydney so shy around me?’ ” In school, says Schimmelpfennig, she wasn’t shy at all: “She is a very demanding girl. She is very outgoing and likes being the center of attention. If we let her run the school, she would.”

She is also fiercely protective of her brother. “She watches over him like a hawk,” says Saul Gelbart, a former attorney for the Brown family. “All they really have is each other, and they’re incredibly close.” And though the Browns and their three surviving daughters were heartbroken by the court’s custody ruling—they do retain visitation rights—they tried to keep their reaction from the children when the call came from their lawyers. “They were here, so you couldn’t get hysterical and go cursing and screaming,” says Denise Brown. “You don’t want them to feel really horrible.” Upon hearing the news, she says, Sydney put her fingers in her mouth and remained quiet, but Justin was reassuring: “Don’t worry, Dita,” he said, using his grandmother’s nickname. “Everything will be okay.” Though the children seem largely unaware of the public debate surrounding their famous father, “In due time, everything will be known,” adds Denise. “I just hope that when he’s booed out of restaurants and called a murderer that the kids aren’t with him.”

No matter how they fare with O.J., there seems little doubt that they sorely miss Nicole, the sort of devoted mom who would cancel an afternoon’s plans so she could watch her kids put on an impromptu variety show or karate exhibition. “I know how much they were loved by their mother,” says Robin Greer. “However they deal with the facts of this bizarre Greek tragedy, I’m sure they will always preserve the memory intact.” In fact, they seem intent on doing so. Anneliese Schimmelpfennig is still struck by the comment Sydney made one day while planting seeds in the school garden. “I hope the sunflowers grow to be big,” she recalls the child saying, “so that my mother can see them from heaven.”



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