2 My One-Eyed Nanny…
Our most profound self-denial comes when
we say yes to our fathers and yes to our lives.
When I heard my father shouting, the rain suddenly stopped.
Like a baby's crying, which has no prelude or progression from sobs to outpouring of tears, this rain began unannounced, and it ceased just as abruptly. There was no gradual diminution in its intensity, nor did the dark clouds slowly dissipate. To me it seemed as if the raindrops suddenly decided, in mid-flight, to stop their descent, probably because of my father's ability to fill them with terror.
Frightened, I stopped and pulled on my mother's sleeve. "Mama?"
Looking up at the heavy, now rainless sky and forcibly staying her own tears, she put her arm around my shoulders, and we resumed our steps homeward.
That she didn't want to say anything to me made me realize that she and Father had been quarreling again.
"Mama," I said, trying to clear my throat and suppress the fear and confusion in my heart, so that my words might spool out as smooth and unbroken as a cotton thread. I didn't want to stammer or make any awkward pauses. At last, in one breath, I quoted a passage from Mao Zedong's Little Red Book, which we read daily in primary school at that time. "Mama, Chairman Mao says that we should work to nurture unity, not division…"
With that, I fell into stony silence.
At that time I did not understand the sexual implications of the word "nurture" in this phrase.
Very clearly, union between a man and woman requires a special kind of nurturing. Their sexual roles, standpoints, thinking, and behavior are so vastly different that without such nurturing it would be impossible for them to communicate. Thus it is that men and women are by nature friends in "struggle," not friends in "concord." Only by nurturing it can they beget "unity" under one roof, in order to face the confusion in the world outside. Only under the advantage that the unity of a home provides can they reduce the differences of their individual sexuality, lessen the contradictions and conflicts resulting from their individuality, and hold the family together securely to present a consistent face to the world outside.
Of course, unions that have been nurtured can break apart. When it reaches the point where the conflicts between these two individuals of different sex become so severe that they can ignore the good of the family as a whole, then this unit will dissolve.
But these are things that I only slowly began to understand with the passage of time.
Following my little outburst, I bowed my head, focusing my attention on the soggy gray mud that was creeping over my sandals and oozing in and out between my toes as I walked.
By forcing myself to concentrate all my attention on my feet and find pleasure in this decidedly unpleasant circumstance, I managed to free myself from the strange sensation of being unable to verbalize my feelings.
From childhood I have had a unique ability to dispel, shift, or ignore the tragic aspects of things. In any kind of antagonistic situation, I always give precedence to my own feelings. I have a kind of strength that allows me to push on recklessly in dead-end situations. This feeling of not caring about ultimate annihilation is much like the passion of a martyr. When I encounter grief, I automatically try to find a way to change the direction of my feelings. Maybe my focus at that moment on the mud between my toes is a good illustration of this quirk of mine.
Mother said, "Your father doesn't want Nanny to live here anymore."
Nanny was the housekeeper who had been looking after us for many years. She only had one eye; she had lost sight in the other one many years ago when her husband had struck her. In the years she spent with us, she cried many times. Whenever she cried, to avoid getting caught in her grief myself, I would carefully watch her blind eye. I discovered that it never shed tears.
I once asked her why she cried.
She told me because of her grief.
I asked why her bad eye didn't grieve.
She said because it couldn't feel grief anymore.
I asked why it couldn't feel grief.
She said it was because it was already dead, that it had been killed by her husband many, many years ago. It was only after she had left him that she had come to work for us, and endure my father's anger.
I told her that when I grew up I was going to find her husband and make him pay for that eye.
She said to me, "Ni Niuniu, if you marry a good man when you grow up, then you won't suffer."
I replied that when I grew up I would make my husband suffer – a man like Teacher Ti, for instance.
I remember very clearly that Nanny wanted me to find a good husband.
In those days, I had a bad habit of dropping my chopsticks (a problem I haven't totally shaken till this day). Because I had little interest in food, I went through two or three pairs of chopsticks at every meal. At the table, my attention would always wander elsewhere. After a few mouthfuls, I would balance my chopsticks on my rice bowl and pick up a book or something else of interest that I had brought to the table. For a while this would take my attention; then I would return to my food, eat a bit, then put my chopsticks down again to pick up the book or whatever. Back and forth, so it would go – my heart always elsewhere. Balanced as they were on my bowl, it was inevitable that my chopsticks would get knocked onto the floor. And every single time, Nanny would fetch me a clean pair, chattering on in her usual way: "'Grip your chop-sticks near the tip, your married home will be a short trip. Hold them far away from the tip, and your parents' home will be a long trip.' But you – always carelessly knocking them on the floor – what kind of behavior is that!"
I didn't know if Nanny's traditional wisdom had any basis in fact. I simply pretended that I didn't hear and continued to knock my chopsticks off the table. But I never did it on purpose.
It was only after I had grown up that I understood how much our home had depended on her. Quietly and without letup, she had worked pulling out the weeds and watering to turn part of our neglected yard into a wonderful garden. Day in and day out, her apron swinging, she tirelessly looked after all the little things that had to be done. She daily filled our table, supporting us with the bounty of her work, so that our family might prosper and survive. She sacrificed herself to our family; she knew all its secrets, all that it stood for. She gave it all her strength.
But in the end, she was unable to save it.
With her departure, the family lost its life breath and gradually disintegrated.
When Father's shouts crashed down upon me like thunderclaps, I instinctively closed my eyes. I was afraid that the noise would leave me half blind like Nanny if it should strike my eyes.
I slowed down, tugging on my mother's sleeve, and whispered apprehensively, "Mama?"
"Nanny is waiting to say good-bye to you," she said, putting her arm around me, urging me homeward.
I dragged my feet, asking, "Why? I don't want Nanny to go."
"Niuniu, do as you're told."
I said, "Why is Papa sending her away?"
Mother didn't answer.
Trying to sort out for myself my father's reasons for making Nanny leave our family, I remembered something else. Before I had tried to keep a sparrow, I had had a little dog. Because he had a very big mouth, unusually soft and beautiful Caucasian-style eyes, and an impeccable milky white patrician coat, Mama and I decided to call him Sophia Loren, even though "she" was a he. Sophia Loren was very smart even as a puppy, and had a terrific sense of humor. He very clearly had his own mind and a keen sense of judgment. But his desire to always have his say and to express his views on everything was the seed of his misfortune.
Often on Sunday mornings when I got up I couldn't find my shoes, because on Saturday night when Mother and I discussed going to the park the next day, we had forgotten to include Sophia Loren. The next morning, bright and early, to let me know how important he was and that he was not about to be neglected, he would hide my shoes and then lie beside my bed, waiting for me to wake up and discover they had disappeared.
I remember that in the mid-'7os when very few Chinese families had television, we had a rather fancy Russian-style radio. Early every morning at precisely seven o'clock, my father would irritably turn it on to catch the news and at the same time would issue his order for all of us to get up. Then Sophia Loren would sit motionless in front of the radio and listen intently to the news, making no bones about expressing his approval or displeasure. After my father, he was the "person" in our family most concerned with politics. Following the news, they always played the same piece of music. For Sophia Loren this was irresistible. When the strains of "The East Is Red" began to fill the room, he gaily sang along, "Woof, woof, woof, woof, woof!"
On one occasion, in late 1975 or early 1976, when a news broadcast of the paper "Counterattack the Trend to Exonerate Rightists," criticizing "the mistaken road of Rightist opportunism," concluded, Sophia Loren, displeased for some inexplicable reason, immediately lifted his leg and peed on the radio. This sort of crude behavior was an entirely new departure for him. We were all astonished, because he hadn't relieved himself in the house since he was a puppy. But it seemed that everyone in the house, my father included, understood his displeasure. My father commented, "Even the dog doesn't like to listen to this stuff." So Sophia Loren wasn't punished for that indiscretion.
But a short time later, at about the time of the Festival of Pure Brightness, he did it again. On the radio, a critic from the People's Daily was reading a solemn report concerning the "April 5th Counter- revolutionary Incident." This time Sophia Loren didn't wait until the program was finished. He went straight over and gave the radio another drenching.
Sophia Loren didn't like my parents quarreling. If they hadn't been speaking to each other for a long time, he would take first one, then the other by the sleeve and try to pull them together. Before they went to bed at night, he would drag their pajamas together. When they took to actual quarreling, he would yelp and cry to break their hostility.
On the surface, Sophia Loren gave the appearance of being an impartial mediator, but in fact he knew very clearly the way things stood in our family, and his bias was very clear – he was my mother's faithful ally.
My father was, of course, aware of this all along, but he put up with it, waiting for the right moment. The trouble between my father and Sophia Loren had been brewing for a long time. They were both aware of the silent and intangible power struggle that was going on, though nothing was ever said.
Sophia Loren understood very clearly the value of hiding your light under a bushel and biding your time until you had the advantage; he was definitely not going to pit his strength openly against Father. So the violent struggle stirred and developed beneath a calm surface. I have no idea why Father chose a dog as his adversary in such a serious family confrontation. He was always straightforward in his treatment of Mother, Nanny, and me. With us he played his cards on the table; there was no hidden agenda. His displeasure was clearly written on his face. Of course, whether you were talking about authority, physical dominance (Father was a very big, rough-and-ready man), or economic power, he was unquestionably number one in our family. But seeing how my father suppressed or restrained his attitude toward Sophia Loren led me, after I had grown up, to see another reason for his dominance: his aggressiveness, his despotic ways, and his power were freely given to him by Mother, Nanny, and me. We handed him the power to oppress us through our gentleness and submissiveness. The more tolerant and obedient we were, the more violent and dictatorial he became.
But Sophia Loren was different. If he appeared to be submissive, this was only because he couldn't talk. His apparent acquiescence had nothing to do with capitulation. He used a silent, passive stance to express his active involvement in the life of the family. Although this kind of beneath-the-surface opposition and testing of each other's strength was difficult to detect, both Father and Sophia Loren knew exactly what was going on. It was only because the right moment had not presented itself that they had not committed themselves to open warfare.
Another point that did not occur to me until after I had grown up was that they were the same sex. Father was an out-and-out redneck male, and Sophia Loren was a male dog. And wherever males congregate (or are in the majority), whether it be in the political arena, the world of finance, the battlefield, or even the garden of love, that is where the stratagems of struggle are the most refined, intense, and cruel.
But in the end, the animosity between my father and Sophia Loren could no longer be contained and erupted in open warfare.
I remember one occasion when my father and mother started quarreling. I didn't know the reason, but it probably concerned another man. My father always made himself sick with his doubts and anxieties, suspecting everyone around him, so that he suffered from extreme nervous tension. This time he was especially angry, violent; there was no reasoning with him. My mother also refused to give in, insisting that all of Father's speculations were groundless, all the exaggerated results of his perverted imagination. Father's anger got the best of him and he struck Mother, knocking her glasses off.
Sophia Loren, who had been observing this battle for a long time but staying out of it, could no longer restrain his anger. He barked at my father, and leaping into the air, he gave him a terrific clout with his left front paw.
At first Father was thunderstruck. Never before had his authority suffered such an indignity. Then he bent down and started groping around for his glasses. After he had straightened up and put them on, Sophia Loren's unfortunate fate was settled – he was banished from our home forever, to join the nameless stray dogs on the streets.
Nanny's banishment from our home had made me think of Sophia Loren. I was certain that her transgression must have been about the same as Sophia Loren's.
When I went into the house, Nanny was using her good eye to cry. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, her lustrous gray-white hair coiled in a simple bun held in a black net at the back of her head. Her traditional black jacket was neatly pressed and buttoned across her chest and down the side. On the bed beside her was a bundle, not very large, loosely tied in a dark blue cotton cloth. Together, they looked very much like a painting.
Father was sitting in the big wicker chair in the study, with his back, as imposing as a mountain peak, toward us, so I could not see what kind of mood he was in. Actually, I had no intention of looking at him, because I instinctively feared that he would be angry and I wouldn't be able to avoid him. I had caught a glimpse of his figure from the corridor.
I went and stood in front of Nanny. She started crying again and put her arms around me, then stopped to say, "Niuniu, you're soaked, get into something dry right away."
She got up and brought a set of clean clothes for me from the closet, and was waiting to dry me off and help me dress. But when I was washing my face my own tears started to flow and I repeatedly refused her help. I washed and washed my face, dragging out the time until I eventually realized as she busied herself around me that she had been waiting until I returned home to help me change my clothes.
When I had finally stemmed my tears and finished washing and getting dressed, Nanny's till then busy hands suddenly drooped like wind-broken branches, not severed completely, just hanging there pointlessly.
Finally she sighed and said, "Well, I guess I'd better be on my way."
But she just stood there, not knowing what to do.
I'm afraid of good-byes. I avoid scenes of shared grief as if they were the plague.
I turned abruptly, taking Nanny's bundle, and went out the door.
I heard Mama and Nanny follow me outside. They were talking, but I couldn't make out what they were saying. Actually, I was afraid to hear them and I didn't want to turn and look at them, because if I did, I knew that I would start to cry again and that once my tears started I would have a hard time stopping them. I didn't want that to happen, because I knew it was of no use and would only make me feel worse.
I tried desperately to think of something; I looked around, hoping to find something else that would capture my attention. But this time it was no use: I could not escape the grief of this separation.
When I got to the courtyard entrance, I stopped and waited for Mama and Nanny to catch up. The sound of their approaching footsteps suddenly became unbearable. I began to tremble with grief. I became angry with myself because I had dearly hoped not to succumb to such overwhelming grief while saying good-bye.
At that point, I discovered a new channel for my feelings – anger. Of course, anger. I was enraged.
Nanny had caught up with me. She and Mama stood close together at the entrance to our courtyard.
The lane was still wet after the rain, and the street drains were gurgling with runoff water. The base of the courtyard wall was strewn with fallen leaves and blossoms where water droplets refracted light, and the air was heavy with the redolent odor of pollen.
Nanny gave her key to Mama, then turned to me and took me in her arms to say something.
Not a leaf stirred. It was as if they too were waiting on her final words.
Choking sobs began to well up from my chest into my throat. Without waiting for her to open her mouth, as if I had something urgent to do at home, I hurriedly and with a strange hostility said, "Nanny, when I grow up and earn some money, I'll bring you back home. I'll make him leave. I'll make him pay!"
Then, without looking back, I fled back to the house.
"Him," of course, was my father.