I was in the second grade at the pre-school elementary school, and I came Home from school just after four o’clock, and no one was home. My mother always went to the People’s Hospital on South County Street in the afternoon to get her shots. The key to open the door was left on the stove outside the door. I opened the lock myself, it was a very small and very weak old lock, I think it could be opened by pulling hard, hanging there just for show, but it was very safe to have the good lady next door at home.
The sunset shone on the red paint peeling off the door and window frames, and the courtyard was warm. The floor of the atrium was covered with large, neat gray tiles, which were swept clean and looked particularly comfortable. There was a small iron stove in the corner, and there was always a small pot on top, steaming. That must have been the good lady next door cooking, and she cleaned the floor around her.
I would call out to the neighboring house at the bottom of the hallway next to mine, and the good lady next door would come out in response, her round face already squinting with a smile that curved into a line, the corners of her mouth curving upward. I think the good lady next door looks the same as the good fairy lady in the fairy tales. She always wears a small apron around her waist, and habitually wipes her hands on the apron, smiling before she makes a sound, and then calling me “Ding Qing” with a pure Nantong accent.
The good mother-in-law next door is constantly busy doing housework, carrying water and washing clothes, running around boiling rice, filling boiling water, and doing needlework with her head down is the quietest Time for her. I was sitting at the window doing my homework when I heard her hurrying back and forth, going to the corner of the atrium where the stove was located to bring pots and pans of boiling water. I looked up and saw her back, her bun coiled in her bare hair, sometimes with a hair pin in it.
The neighbors called her Xiao Ming’s good mother-in-law. My Family has two young brothers and a little sister right next door, the oldest is called Xiaoming. Their father worked abroad and could not be transferred back to Changshu. Their mother, the daughter of the good mother-in-law, worked in the vegetable market and went to work at dawn. The mother was the daughter of a good mother-in-law who worked in the vegetable market and went to work at dawn. In the old days, customs did not value women, and Goodwife could not read or write, so her identity was attached to her grandson. I still don’t know her last name or first name. But I liked to call her Goodwife along with my younger siblings.
I was seven weeks old at the time and wore two small, thin braids. When I finished my homework, I sat on the threshold and read a book. In the courtyard often three or two women’s families chatting together doing needlework. Some of them often say, Ding Qian, cut off the braids, thin like a mouse tail, really ugly. I was disgusted when I heard it, shaking my head and saying no. Sometimes nosy adults really came to pull my braids, I was so scared that I clutched these two beloved “little tails” and walked away angrily.
Due to chronic malnutrition as a child, my hair was always soft and yellow. But I, like other girls, like to comb pigtails, often change the pattern, the braid rolled up thick. There were so many girls wearing various hair styles in little people’s books, and sometimes I would comb myself to play with the hair styles in the pictures.
At this time, the good mother-in-law would often come up to me with a smile and ask if she wanted to comb my hair. She picked up a comb and walked behind me, one by one, slowly combing my hair, sometimes dipping it in water, then carefully braiding two small braids and tying the tips with a nice headband she found somewhere. I trusted my mother-in-law and didn’t move. I felt comfortable with the tickle on my head, and from time to time she caressingly touched my head with her big hand, which made me feel warm inside.
I found that the good mother-in-law next door, with her head down doing needlework, often hummed a little song in her mouth, drawn long and slow, sometimes lilting, sometimes low. When the humming is high, the sound is very loud, and at the end, it always goes down and fades away. The silence starts again for a while and continues for a long time. I thought it was strange, could it be her Nantong hometown ditty. I watched her hands fly up and down the needle and thread, while listening.
At one point I couldn’t help but ask her, “What is Goodwife singing? As if I had awakened her from her dream state, she settled down and lowered her head to do her sewing again. I tilted my head up and saw a little tear in her thinly squinted eyes. After a while, she heaved a sigh and said: she had an older son, when he was twenty years old, jumped into the river to save an old man and was drowned himself. I heard a shock, asked, who is the old man?
She replied, “I don’t know. It was her son who passed by and saw the old man fall into the river. I stood frozen beside her, motionless, unable to say a word, not even a word of comfort. The good woman did not raise her head, said intermittently, my eldest son is good, very understanding, filial obedience to me, sired for several years. I felt that she was treating me like an adult when she spoke. I listened without making a sound and stood by her side without moving. After a while, she went on humming again as if no one was there. Sometimes her body swayed slightly with the rhythm. Goodwife was immersed in a world of sadness, searching for her lost son.
Whenever Goodwife sang with her head bowed like this, I was silent, but I felt very uncomfortable and watched her with love and compassion while listening. From the side, I saw her head bowed in silhouette, with a full forehead and a round, bulging bun at the back, as if she were a statue called “The Sorrowful Mother. This image is still engraved in my memory. I can’t imagine how deep love and endless sorrow is contained in the melody of this chant.
The good mother-in-law’s family is in Nantong, northern Jiangsu Province, and she has a young daughter at home. She went to Changshu to help her older daughter take care of the children and sometimes had to go back to Nantong. Whenever she came back, I was so excited that it was as if my own grandmother had returned. Time passed quickly and I grew up a bit.
When I was young, there was only my mother at home, not my father. In the early summer of 1962, my father was sent to the northwest to work as a labor campsite because he was seriously ill. I didn’t know my father, but when he squeezed my little hand with his big, swollen hands, that was the first time I felt the warmth of my father’s love since I can remember. Most of the more than ten neighbors in the courtyard were cadres and revolutionaries, except for my father, who was a counter-revolutionary. The surrounding neighbors could open their doors every day and see the inside of my family’s room at a glance. In those days, the revolutionary masses had to draw a clear line with the class enemy and should not have greeted my father.
Since my father came home, our family suddenly became a class enemy under supervision. I gradually realized that I was a child of the four categories and understood what the dictatorship of the proletariat was. The atmosphere around me was tense, and I learned to speak quietly in the house and to keep quiet when I left the house so as not to cause trouble for the adults. The closest and most trustworthy figure was still the good mother-in-law next door, who walked over and over to my window as usual. I was tired of listening to her little steps.
Life was even harder after my father came home. My father had only 24 and a half pounds of Food a month, the same as an elementary school student. But it was not enough for him to do heavy physical labor. In order to make ends meet, my father often got up before dawn to stand in line to buy things he didn’t need tickets for and things others didn’t want. He used all the methods he had learned as a child in the countryside and as a student in exile during the war to make a “delicious” dinner out of tofu scraps, bran, and frozen yams. Of course, the food on the table began to look odd.
One day, my father was trying to fix the meal he had created, when suddenly someone spoke at the window, “What’s up? Mr. Lu.” We were all startled. The good mother-in-law appeared at the window, as if a fairy mother-in-law had come down to earth. She smilingly asked my father, Nantong means: what is that ah? Usually my father did not want to involve the neighbors and seldom took the initiative to greet people. At this point, my father explained slightly, not without embarrassment. The good woman looked carefully for a while and nodded her head. After a while, the good woman’s daughter quietly reached in through the window and put down a large bowl of fried pickles, smelling hot. She gestured “shhh” not to disturb the other neighbors. At that moment I saw my good mother-in-law standing outside the window sill where she was washing the vegetables, smiling and watching, I understood, we all understood.
The same thing happened many times. Then the good mother-in-law left Changshu and didn’t come back for a long time. Then later, the yard was classified as a dangerous house, and Xiaoming’s family and several other neighbors moved one after another to a new house in Nanjingtang. My family was a category 4 member, and the Yushan Township Housing Office delayed in assigning housing to my family. I never had the chance to be neighbors with my good mother-in-law.
A few years later, one afternoon in the spring and summer of 1970, I passed by the small street of Nanjingtang and remembered that Xiao Ming’s family and some old neighbors lived here. I turned in the front door and saw Goodwife busy in the yard. The kitchen was cooking rice dumplings and the yard was full of fragrant rice dumpling leaves. Oh, it was nearing the Dragon Boat Festival. I was overjoyed to hear the familiar Nantong accent “Ding Qing” again. She was busy greeting me to eat zongzi, and I hurriedly excused myself to leave.
At that time, supplies were scarce and glutinous rice for making rice dumplings was supplied to each household according to its population. I ran quite fast and did not turn back until I was far from the gate. The actual fact is that the good lady is chasing me in the far side of the street, carrying the dumplings in her hand, while shouting something, a bit strained. I was touched and hard, hesitated, I still ran away. This and other images have survived in my memory for decades, and every time I think about it there is an indescribable warmth, also mixed with some remorse.
Two years later, I went to Inner Mongolia to join the army. A few years later, I returned to Changshu for the Spring Festival and once caught a glimpse of the good lady next door in front of a fruit store on Westgate Street. I crossed the street to say hello, and she looked up at me, obviously not recognizing me. But she still smiled at me, blossoming into a smile with deep wrinkles, still in the shape of my fairy mother-in-law. One of her hands grasped the apron, which was always tied around her waist, with something in its pocket. Then she turned and hurriedly walked away, looking around to the ground while searching for something.
I stood in front of the store and watched her as she kept bending down, picking up pieces of orange peel from people’s feet, from the gutter, and putting them in her apron. She poked and prodded at the large garbage can containing fruit peels, picking up handfuls of yellow orange peels and stuffing them into her apron. The good lady next door is aging, her gait is not very good, and her back is a bit hunched. After a while, she hurried out of the crowd. At this time, the crowd of pedestrians, her back disappeared.
Later, I heard people say that the good lady next door had always lived in Changshu, and in the 1970s, when life was difficult, she had no financial resources and often came out to collect orange peels, which she washed and dried and sold to Chinese Medicine stores. I haven’t seen her since then, and when I went back to China a few years ago, I inquired about my old neighbor and learned that she had passed away.
Written in Biarcliff New York
March 23, 2018