The Uncertain Past on the Smiling Face (2)

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…continued from part I

I was about four or five years old the first time when my parents took me back to see my father’s family in Hui Li(会理).

Grandpa had nine children with my grandma, who brought with her a permanent nanny as part of her dowry. They lived together in a two-story cottage with a front and side yard. For a girl who lived with her parents in a one-room high school apartment — the public canteen and outhouse were two hundred meters away and eerily lit by a dim 15-watt bulb – an entire house became a never-dying charm in my heart.

The few times we traveled from Mi Yi(米易) to Hui Li(会理) , I felt very much endeared and enchanted by my grandfather’s Chinese-style cottage, with its real kitchen and a private, detached bathroom just two steps away. Even if the bathroom was just a properly covered shit hole, I still adored the delicacy and privacy that couldn’t be had anywhere else.

Definitely, the outhouse of the High School where my parents taught had contributed to my infinite admiration of my grand father’s. I just don’t know how I dared entering the public shit house after dark, my mind anxious with dread, imagining the evil man or ghost jumping out through the boards. As soon as I was finished, I would run out as fast as I could,  as far as possible, with my pants halfway up, like a lost spirit screaming loudly and desperately inside but pretentiously keeping calm on the outside, away from the despicably horrifying public shit hut.

In the whole world, there was nothing so nice and cozy in my heart as Grandpa’s two yards. He had  two trees in the front yard: a cherry tree and a crabapple tree with shiny sour-sweet fruit, in addition to other trees and flowers. My grandparents even had a mechanical, manually operated well close to the kitchen to provide portable water for the household.

In the side yard stood a large, mature plum tree that produced lots of plums every year, though none of the children ever stole its sour, bitter fruit. They shook their heads at me when I picked one. They knew. But four or five years after China’s Grand Famine of 1961, the mere fact of having the chance to know and eat those pretty, precious plums – in fact I hadn’t known or tasted any fruit before, provoked a rare, unearthly and uncannily good feeling, despite of the actual tart taste.  It was a feeling of prestige, an impression of a better world in an atmosphere of freedom and abundance,  a naive sensation, the value of which was not confirmed, praised nor encouraged by the outside of this world.  It was a kind of secretive little joy in my innocent young mind.

Lovely and cunning,  the cottage was never big enough for 12 people. The older siblings were probably forced to leave home at quite a young age in order to make room for their younger brothers and sisters. When I was born, my dad and his two elder siblings had already left home, all by the age of 15. But when we were visiting, I couldn’t comprehend how two bedrooms could accommodate Mom, Dad and me, plus Grandma, her nanny, and father’s three younger sisters!

Grandpa had the 3rd bedroom – the master bedroom to himself. That was HIS study and bedroom. Saying HIS, it is because I had never seen grandma wonder in this room or share his bed. That was grandfather’s room on the second floor, as sacred as the King’s.

I had no words to describe it at the time, but I sensed something strange about the way that he, as the head of the family, would take his meals alone upstairs in his study. To me, he was an important person who always presented himself before us as a serious, unsmiling authority.

One incident, however, began to change my impression of him. One day around dinner time, he caught me running in the front yard and carried me up to his study. It was here at his desk that he would eat his solitary meal, surrounded by his pile of books topped with his pair of reading glasses.

This time, though, he seated me on his lap in front of a plate of bāo zi (包子), two round dumplings filled with meat and vegetables. I stared at the soft white, nicely pleated dumplings, the smell making my stomach turn madly inside causing the over-familiar noise cry boldly loud from its miserable shy dungeon.

My mouth dropped open as if I were the Little Match Girl. Grandpa took out his snow-white handkerchief and wiped my dirty face and hands clean, spoiling the spotless cloth he used to clean his glasses, just for me. I was perched on his lap, behaving extremely well in anticipation of something unbelievably good falling on my head.

He took up one bāo zi, broke it in two halves, and placed one in my hand. I turned my face to Grandpa, goggling at his face in search for another sign of consent. As soon as he nodded, I swallowed the bāo zi in two voracious mouthfuls.  Watching his granddaughter nearly choke herself colourless, he smiled.

That was the only time I ever saw him smile.


To be continued…

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