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Monday, August 4, 2008

Silk Shoes, Chinese Amahs, and the Olympics*

Today, with the Olypmics in Beijing only four days away, I think of China, and my mother's love of this mysterious and exotic land. Her childhood memories cloaked her during years of debilitating cancer as an adult. Often times, they were the only protection she had.

I have just painted the dining room in the mountain cabin that used to be my mother's, but which is now mine, a Chinese cherry red. She would have approved, and perhaps - even now - is casting her blessing like peonies petals blown down from heaven.

On the living room wall of every one of our homes – from this mountain home in the Colorado Rockies, to our Kew Gardens apartment on Long Island – my mother hung a tiny pair of Chinese shoes. The thinly layered soles of these shoes are protected by rawhide, which forms a thick cushion meant to protect one’s feet from the overflowing gutters of China’s crowded cities. The upper shoe is cotton, decorated with colorful, hand-embroidered silk made during the nationalist years of Chiang Kai-Shek.

These shoes were brought to her when she was just a child by Cousin Walter, who lived in Shanghai during the years preceding World War II. These were also the years of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, Sons, and A House Divided – rich years for my mother, brimming with tales of worldly travels and foreign cultures, for cousin Walter returned to the States each summer, always bearing gifts from “the Orient.” My mother loved these exciting summer visits not just because of the gifts, nor Pearl S. Buck’s exotic stories, but because her cousin’s entourage always included his children, and their nannies, the Chinese amahs.

As a child, years later, in each new home we inhabited, I would stare at the colorful shoes decorating the wall and ask my mother to tell me stories of Cousin Walter’s visits.

“Tell me about the amahs again, please?”

“Well, the amahs were supposed to do everything we asked of them, and were never to lose sight of us.”

“So you would tease them and hide in the rose gardens!” I blurted. “Tell me about the breakfasts!”

Mother always laughed, and then she would take the shoes down from the wall and we would each hold one in our hands, and I would trace the delicate embroidery with my fingertips as she continued.

“Every morning we hid in our bedcovers until the amahs came in to ask us what we would like for breakfast. ‘Strawberry shortcake!’ we all cried out. ‘Chocolate tortes!’

The amahs giggled and bowed slowly backward out of the room, nodding their heads, pretending to agree. ‘Yes, Missies. Yes, Missies.’”

Even though I’d heard the stories many times, I would clutch the shoe to my heart, urging my mother to continue. “But you never got tortes for breakfast, did you?”

“No, never tortes, or shortcake. When the amahs returned with our breakfast trays; they always held such boring things as porridge and eggs, toast and juice. Yet we always pretended, just the same.”

“And then you dressed and hid in the rose gardens?”
“Yes,” she laughed. “Each morning we hid from the amahs, and each morning they pretended to be worried sick.”

“Tell me about the pink jade elephants,” I would implore.

Mother would smile, taking the shoe from me and returning the pair to their place of honor on the living room wall. “Perhaps tomorrow morning, after your chores are done.”

And thus the stories, and my fascination with China, continued.

China became my Shangri-La, and Pearl S. Buck my heroine. Because Ms. Buck lived in China during some of the same years as my mother’s cousin Walter, I loved to imagine that they knew one another, perhaps even shared tea in the afternoon. Maybe even tossed story ideas back and forth. Perhaps Cousin Walter contributed a thought or two which wove its way into one of Ms. Buck intriguing stories.

I enjoy these musings, especially now, for the shoes no longer hang on the walls of my mother’s homes, but on the walls of the home where I live alone. Like Pearl and Walter, my mother is now gone, and I have become the caretaker of the shoes, and the stories. Like the amahs, far from home, I am learning the joy of pretending.

Perhaps these tiny silk shoes hold within their tattered fabric the stories of many exotic lives. Perhaps they were even worn by poor Peony, the Chinese bondmaid reared in a Jewish household in the province of Honan. Ah, but wait…Peony was a figment of Ms. Buck’s abundant imagination. She would’ve had no need for shoes to protect her delicate feet. Yet Peony was my first love story, and as real as all the loves and lives that followed.

“Nothing is lost,” Peony mused in her old age, contemplating the family she had grown to love.

“Their blood is lively in whatever frame it flows, and when the frame is gone, its very dust enriches the still kindly soil. Their spirit is born anew in every generation. They are no more and yet they live forever.”

I wonder how many of the Chinese citizens of Beijing have ever read Pearl S. Buck - if they would consider my mother's romantic memories foolish in these modern times - an anachronism belonging to a bygone era.

*A slightly different version of this story appears in the anthology In the Shadow of the Bear Lodge: Writings from the Black Hills (Many Kites Press, 2006, www.bearlodgewriters.com)

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